Berkeley, Richmond Council Target Lab Projects

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday May 15, 2008 - 10:22:00 AM

While Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) has made minor changes to its plans for its planned biofuel lab, the project’s recently released environmental impact review (EIR) rejects any move to another site. 

A group of environmentalists and preservationists has called for either rejection or redrafting of the EIRs of the Helios Building and a second building planned at the lab. The Richmond City Council adopted a resolution calling for the move last week, while the Berkeley City held back on a similar resolution. 

“It was delayed to give Planning Director Dan Marks time to see if he could get them to agree to some compromises,” said Berkeley Councilmember Dona Spring. 

In Richmond, Vice Mayor John E. Marquez and councilmembers Nathaniel Bates and Maria T. Viramontes have sponsored a resolution calling on the UC Board of Regents to deny certification of the EIRs for both the Helios building and for the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) facility, two high-tech structures planned at either end of the lab’s campus in the Berkeley hills above the city and the university campus. 

Instead, the Richmond resolution urges, the university should consider relocating the buildings to UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station, which had also been proposed by the university as the site of a corporate/academic research park until soil cleanup problems put the project on hold. 

The Helios building will house some of LBNL’s ongoing energy research as well as the controversial $500 billion synthetic fuel and energy program funded by British oil giant BP. 

The CRT building, located near LBNL’s Blackberry Gate, will house a federal supercomputer facility now located in a leased building in downtown Oakland. 

The Helios EIR dismisses public concerns raised in writing and in a December public testimony session conducted during a meeting of the Berkeley Planning Commission about possible hazards resulting from research in two controversial areas of science: genetic modification of living organisms and nanotechnology, the use of microscopic particles for industrial processes. 

The Helios building would be located across from the lab’s Molecular Foundry, which specializes in research employing nanoparticles—minute particles invisible not only to the eye but to most microscopes. While critics warn that the particles pose potential hazards to health and environment, the EIR contends that only small quantities would be used, and that filters and other precautions would prevent the escape of all but an insignificant fraction. 

Plans for both the Helios and CRT buildings have been changed, with the major alterations consisting of a new access road for the energy facility and a lowered profile for the CRT building. 

The EIRs for the two projects both reject any moves to Richmond or to a need to extend the comment periods. 

Among those who have gone on record with a call to consider relocation are Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin and Norman La Force of the Sierra Club, who cite both environmental and preservation motives. 

While the final EIR specifically rejects the claims that the Strawberry Canyon and adjacent hillsides form a cultural landscape, then-president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation told a Berkeley audience last August that the canyon clearly met the criteria. 

While the lab “acknowledges that Strawberry Canyon is an important resource,” the EIR declares that “Strawberry Canyon is not, however, a cultural landscape.” In support of its claim, the EIR cited criteria from the state national parks departments. 

But the Sierra Club’s Northern Alameda County Group disagrees, and in the November/December issue of the San Francisco Sierra Club’s publication The Yodeler, the club announced its support for “protection of Strawberry Canyon and its designation as a cultural landscape.” For support, the club also cited National Parks Service standards for designation. 

But even should the canyon win cultural landscape status, the lab contends, the lab’s development program is “consistent with any possible designation.” 

And, the lab adds, a cultural landscape “is not a concept recognized in” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which governs the environmental review process. 

Spring, who like Gayle McLaughlin is a member of the Green Party, said the projects “are too much for Berkeley. They’re gobbling up the city.” 


Richmond site 

While numerous critics of the lab’s building program called for a move of the two facilities to the Richmond Field Station, a campus-owned facility located on the shores of San Francisco Bay, the EIR concludes “construction of the proposed project at an offsite location is not feasible.” 

The lab contends that travel time, distance from the campus where many lab faculty also teach and separation from other lab facilities make any move impractical. 

One needed facility, the lab contends, is the Molecular Foundry, which is devoted to development of new technology using the microscopic nanotechnology—a term derived from the nanometer, or a unit of measurement that is one billionth of a meter—the scale at which nanoparticles are defined. 

Also needed, the EIR states, is ready access to LBNL’s Advanced Light Source and the National Center for Electron Microscopy. 

The Helios Building would house some 500 scientists, staff and visiting scholars, and, LBNL states, the field station site would make convenient collaboration difficult and “adversely affect the ability of professors to recruit world-class scientists.” 

But Sylvia McLaughlin, whose late spouse served as dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Mining and as first dean of the College of Engineering (which subsumed the role of the mining school), said Richmond is a better site. 

But another McLaughlin, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, voted against the modified resolution that finally passed—which specified that no building should occur near the shoreline, nor before the university completed the cleanup of toxic wastes present at the site. 

Before and after her election to the council, McLaughlin campaigned for a change of regulatory oversight for the cleanup, a move strongly resisted by the university. When the state Department of Toxic Substances Control took over, the agency imposed a more rigorous cleanup regime and discovered new sites of contamination. The cleanup is still underway. 

The mayor was joined in her opposition by Councilmember Tony Thurmond, while Councilmember Tom Butt supported the proposal only with the addition of his friendly amendment that delayed any development until the cleanup is completed. 

“That’s going to take five or 10 years,” said the mayor, who said that concerns about toxins not only at the field station but at the adjacent Zeneca site and others in the areas raised concerns of environmental justice as well. 

Of potential problems with the field station site, the one the university didn’t mention in its final EIR was toxic contamination. 

Social justice issues surrounding biofuels also prompted her opposition, the mayor said. 

“I appreciate that activists in Berkeley want to get these projects out of the Strawberry Canyon area, but the Richmond Field Station is not the right place for them,” said the mayor. 


EBI critiques  

“Commenters have identified a wide range of concerns with regard to use of the (Helios) facility by British Petroleum (BP), a for-profit corporation,” the final EIR notes. 

Concerns ranged from testing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), worries of contamination from modified plants and microbes, potential pollution, and impacts of research on the Third World countries where crops developed in the program will be farmed. 

The EIR’s response to the critiques was simple: “LBNL does not agree that the impacts of future projects or energy production activities that might apply the results of the Helios research activities constitute ‘reasonably foreseeable’ secondary impacts of the Helios project, and until the research is conducted, it is not practicable to evaluate how that research might be applied.” 

The document didn’t mention EBI director Somerville’s own comments to Science Daily (March 1, 2007), where he said “There’s a lot of deforestation certainly going to take place in tropical regions, because those countries are going to develop biofuel businesses.” 

Similarly, the EIR said that “an analysis of future activity (such as the possibility of extracting oil from Canadian tar sands) of an unknown nature is too speculative for evaluation.” BP is a major stakeholder in the Canadian tar sands, where wildlife kills have already resulted from mining and wider health issues have been raised.  

EBI research is planned on using GMOs and other technologies to facility recovery of oil from tar sands. 

While the EIR notes that research will focus on the impact of programs on socio-economic systems, research funded to date is more focused on researching ways to facilitate adoption of technologies developed by the research program. 


Online information 

The Helios EIR is available at the lab’s web site at www.lbl.gov/Community/Helios/documents/index.html. 

The CRT EIR is posted at www.lbl.gov/Community/CRT/documents/index.html.