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Threatened Lawsuit Targets Lab Runoff Contaminants

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday January 15, 2008

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) pollutes San Francisco Bay with illegal levels of metals and nitrogen compounds, charge environmentalists who have filed notice of their intention to sue. 

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and the Strawberry Creek Stewardship Group have served notice on UC Regents, LBNL Director Steven Chu and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. 

Gates was notified because the lab operates under the joint auspices of the university and the Department of Defense. 

Michael Lozeau, the Alameda attorney representing both organizations, said he mailed certified copies the 16-page letter announcing his intention to file suit in 60 days after the Jan. 7 mailing. 

The lawyer, who specializes in environmental law, is a key player in another suit that targets the regents, challenging the Student Athlete High Performance Center and other projects at and around Memorial Stadium. 

Lozeau represents the Panoramic Hill Association in that action. 

The federal Clean Water Act mandates the 60-day notice before the filing of any legal action brought under the law’s provisions. 

“They’re failing to comply with the permit that applies to their stormwater discharge,” Lozeau said. “We have reviewed the last five years of data and they have consistent excedances of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) levels of concern.” 

Lozeau said he has brought 50 or 60 similar actions in the Bay Area and California’s Central Valley in the last three years, usually winning a satisfactory response before the cases reached the courtroom. 

Ron Kolb, the lab’s chief Public Information officer, said Monday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the letter, but would comment Tuesday after he had a chance to review the document. 

Lozeau said that the lab’s remedy would be to “beef up their control measures” using the best available technology achievable (BAT) and the best pollutant control technology (BCT). 

The highest relative concentrations of contaminants involve magnesium, with a federal benchmark level of 0.06 milligrams per liter of runoff versus measured LBNL runoff levels reaching up to 29 milligrams per liter—or 456 times the figure the federal EPA says can be achieved with appropriate technology. 

Lozeau said the figures, provided by the lab, may be ambiguous because questions remain about how they are collected and whether or not they included contaminants arising up-slope from the lab. 

While the lab’s permits require the facility to reduce contaminant levels, “we allege their stormwater pollution plan is not adequate because it is not knocking the numbers down,” he said. 

Of all the contaminants, the nitrates and nitrites in the runoff may have the most potential to harm fish downstream, he said. “They can be pretty nasty, and they can have pretty profound effects on fish.” 

With a federal benchmark level of 0.68 milligrams per liter, lab runoff measurements run as high as 13 milligrams. 

Lozeau said the numbers also raise questions about the Draft Environmental Impact Reports submitted for the Helios and Computational Research and Theory buildings now planned for the lab. 

While the documents propose that the new construction will not be adding to the lab’s cumulative water quality impacts, Lozeau said the fact that the lab isn’t in compliance with its current stormwater discharge permits raises questions about the accuracy of the documents. 

“The more the lab is built out, the more you can expect to see cumulative effects,” he said. 

The good news in the report is that the figures give no indications of runoffs of tritium—a radioactive isotope of hydrogen—or any other radioactive materials, Lozeau said. Tritium is present in subsurface groundwater plumes that have been documented at the lab, but it doesn’t appear to be contaminating surface runoff. 

As for the other contaminants which do appear, “They are supposed to put in the best technology available to reduce those numbers to something that is insignificant,” Lozeau said.