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Critics of UC Computer Lab Seek Review Extension

By Richard Brenneman
Friday January 04, 2008

Concerns over the timing of the environmental review of a towering computer lab planned for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) are triggering newly organized opposition. 

The opponents’ aim is to generate last-minute critiques and push for an extension of the review period. 

Julie Dickinson, Janice Thomas, Merilee Mitchell and other Berkeley residents say they are concerned about the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) facility planned for a site adjacent to the lab’s Blackberry Gate in the Berkeley Hills. 

One of their first concerns is the timing of the public comment period on the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) issued by the lab. 

What worries critics of the project is that much of the public comment period occurred over the winter holiday period, when many university students and faculty were out of town, along with many townspeople. 

On campus, final exams ended Dec. 20 and classes don’t begin again until Jan. 15.  

The comment period ends today, Friday. 

While he refused to extend the comment period for the CRT building, LBNL Director Steve Chu did lengthen the comment period on a second lab building. 

Chu agreed to add three weeks to the comment period for the Helios Building, the structure which will house the research labs of the Energy Biosciences Institute, the $500 million research program funded by BP—formerly British Petroleum—to develop genetically modified crops and microbes designed to produce the next generation of transportation fuels. Though the period was originally slated to expire Jan. 11, comment will be accepted through Feb. 1. 

Lab community relations officer Terry Powell said Thursday that the DEIR for the CRT building had been issued on Nov. 9, and with the close of the review period today, the document has been available for comment for 56 days, “so we didn’t see the need of extending the comment period.” 

With the Helios building, she said, the DEIR was issued a week later, and “it had some more complex issues, and the comment period wrapped around the holidays more directly,” so the extension was granted. 

The California Environmental Quality Act, which mandates reviews of major projects for their impacts on the physical, biological and social environments, requires a 45-day review period of DEIRs so that the public and public agencies can comment on a report’s adequacy. Comments must be considered in the final EIR. 

“We want them to extend the comment period for the computer facility,” said Julie Dickinson. “We’re also asking other people to request an extension, and we’ve been contacting people in public agencies, too. 

“It’s going to be a huge facility, and not many people are aware of what it means,” she said. 

The CRT described in the DEIR would rise 160 feet from its base at the Blackberry Gate following a design blasted by James Samuels, the architect who chairs the city’s Planning Commission. 

“The height was unexpected,” said city Planning and Development Director Dan Marks. “It’s quite visible, and almost as tall as the Wells Fargo building. That was quite a shock.” 

“The lab asserts that it will have no impact on the scenic vistas of the hillside, but it’s huge compared to the lab’s other buildings,” said Janice Thomas, who lives on Panoramic Hill. 

But Marks also said that lab officials have told him they are looking at scaling back the height. Marks is preparing the city’s official comments, which he said he’ll be submitting Friday. 

Only the Planning Commission submitted comments of its own, though the document was circulated to other city commissions for their comments, Marks said. 

“It was pretty hard to get comments from the commissions because of the holidays,” he said. 

Most of the critiques of the CRT project focus on that core principle of real estate: Location, location, location. 

In an e-mail to environmentalists, Thomas said specific concerns include: 

• A project site on undeveloped land and near areas with important biological resources, including the Alameda whipsnake, identified as a threatened species by federal and state agencies; 

• The requirement for removal of 72 trees from the project area; 

• Proximity to sensitive scrub, riparian and woodland habitats; 

• Potential harm to a range of raptors and other creatures identified as species of concern. 

“The university’s Richmond Field Station would be a much better location for this building,” said Dickinson. 

The building will house the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, currently located in Oakland, and its massive array of Cray computers dubbed “Franklin” and ranked as one of the world’s 10 most powerful computing systems. 

Plans for the 140,000-square-foot building include cooling towers mandated by the heat generated by the computing array, which runs at 101 trillion operations per second, according to the lab’s Nov. 16 community newsletter.  

Besides research aimed at measuring the parameters of the Big Bang that gave rise to the universe, the computers will also be used in energy research from the Helios Building’s projects. 

“It’s ironic that a computer that will be used to look at the origins of creation will also be the reason for destroying some of its beauty,” said Dickinson.  

The CRT DEIR is posted at, while the Helios report is at