Council to Regents: Proposed Labs Endanger Wildlife, Humans

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday May 13, 2008 - 04:38:00 PM

More than two dozen people spoke to the City Council with one voice at a special meeting Monday night: placing two buildings proposed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories in the environmentally sensitive, landslide, wildfire and earthquake-prone area of Strawberry and Blackberry canyons is the wrong thing to do, they said. 

And the council responded by voting unanimously, with Councilmember Kriss Worthington absent, to oppose certification of the final environmental impact reports for the proposed Helios Energy Research Facility and Computer Research and Theory buildings.  

The council voted to ask the city’s planning director to send a strongly worded letter to the UC Board of Regents—the University of California manages the labs— outlining defects in the environmental documents, and to ask the Regents to hold the committee meeting at which members will vote to certify or reject the environmental documents, not by telephone conference but in Berkeley, and finally, to send video copies of Monday night’s public testimony to each Regent. 

The city has no direct control over the university and the labs, which do not have to follow city land use ordinances. If the Regents choose to ignore the council, councilmembers said they would likely sue under the California Environmental Quality Act.  

“I hope we will contest it as far as we can go,” said Councilmember Dona Spring. 

One of the buildings at issue is the CRT Facility, a 126,000 square-foot structure that would house a federal supercomputer facility now located in a leased downtown Oakland building.  

The Helios building proposed nearby would include the Energy Biosciences Institute, a partnership among UC Berkeley, LBNL and the University of Illinois, funded by BP to research biofuels. It is to be built just below the Molecular Foundry, a newly constructed building on the lab site. 

The Regents’ Building and Grounds Committee was originally to have voted on certification of environmental documents today (Tuesday), but, given city concerns, Mayor Tom Bates announced at the beginning of Monday’s meeting, that the lab director would ask the Regents to delay their decision until the end of May, when the committee would meet by telephone and vote on certification. 

LBNL staff defended the final EIR, pointing out that the buildings described there were lower than conceived when the draft environmental documents were released. Among the strongest arguments they made for placement of the buildings in the canyon area was the need for the university and the lab to be close together.  

“Part of the [Helios] project requires nanoscience,” Paul Alivisatos, professor of nanotechnology and a scientist at LBNL, told the council. Alivisatos further underscored the involvement of university graduate students.  

“I have a generation of students who want to participate,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a motivated group.” 

Jeff Philliber, introduced as the lab’s EIR expert, said that another consideration in choosing a site was the need for two separate entrances, one for those who have security clearance from the Department of Energy—the labs’ owner—and one for those who don’t. 

Some 50 people attended the meeting. With the exception of a half-dozen people present on behalf of the LBNL, the audience strongly opposed the project, mostly on environmental grounds. 

“I don’t think we have to destroy this environment to save this environment,” said Dr. Judith Epstein, a mathematician who lives south of the UC campus. 

Martha Nicoloff called on the labs to re-use buildings. “The only green building is an existing building,” she said. 

The projects are “on ground zero of one of the most dangerous earthquake faults in the country,” Pamela Shivola of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste told the council, calling on LBNL to consider alternative sites from Alameda to Vallejo. 

Had the original founders of the labs known the danger of the earthquake fault and of the instability of the earth in the area, they would have placed LBNL elsewhere, said neighborhood activist Juliet Lamont. “Why would we exacerbate this when we have a chance to do something different?” she asked. 

Phil Price who works at the labs pointed out that there are many different sites—including parking lots—where the buildings could be located. 

“We’re not practicing what we preach,” he said. “There’s no good reason for the lab to develop a pristine spot, while old sites are available.” 

Engineer John Shively spoke about hillside instability and traffic congestion. Marjorie Blackwell president of the Audubon Society noted that golden eagles had been seen at the site and Joe Eaton, who writes a column for the Daily Planet on wildlife, said it is habitat for the endangered Alameda whipsnake. 

A trio of costumed opponents, calling themselves the BP Bears, lauded the labs (tongue in cheek) for building a “cobalt” rather than green corridor and suggested renaming University Avenue as Gamma Ray Way.  

“Embrace the change for corporate-private partnership,” one said. 

Most the City Council spoke in opposition to the project as well, with Councilmember Max Anderson saying the city was the “victim of the tyranny of expedience.”  

Spring pointed to the problem of increasing the impact on the city’s aging stormwater system.  

While Gordon Wozniak, a retired LBNL employee, joined fellow councilmembers in the vote to oppose the EIR, he said the area where the facilities are slated to be built is not “pristine.” 

In draft letters to the Regents, Planning Director Dan Marks noted many of the same criticisms the public had expressed. He underscored questions of public safety: 

“We believe it is inappropriate to locate an additional 1,000 people ... in this highly constrained and dangerous location,” he wrote. “Should there be an earthquake or major fire, providing emergency service to this inaccessible site would be highly challenging and perhaps infeasible and evacuation of the site would be equally challenging. In the city’s view, there is already an unacceptably high risk for the existing development and placing even more development in this constrained area means putting more people at risk.” 

Marks concluded: “Finally, because of the substantial new information in the FEIR[s], the city believes there is a basis for recirculating the EIR[s] for additional public review prior to Regents’ action.”