Lawsuits Challenge BP Project Lab, Computing Center at LBNL Campus

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday July 08, 2008 - 04:31:00 PM

Environmental activists have filed two lawsuits that seek to block construction of two major facilities at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

The actions, filed late last month in Alameda County Superior Court, charge that the UC Board of Regents acted illegally when it approved environmental impact reports (EIRs) for both the Helios Building and the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) facility. 

The Helios Building would house the $500 million research program funded by British oil giant BP plc which seeks to created genetically modified plants and microbes in a quest for renewable transportation fuel sources. 

The plaintiff in the both lawsuits is Save Strawberry Canyon, a non-profit organization whose membership includes Berkeley residents Sylvia McLaughlin, Lesley Emmington, Janice Thomas and Hank Gehman. Former mayor Shirley Dean is listed as the group’s legal agent on its filings with the California Secretary of State. 

Both cases have been assigned to Judge Frank Roesch, who is expected to issue his ruling in the next few weeks on another suit which seeks to overturn the regents’ approval of the lab’s 2006 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) (see http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2008-05-29/article/30122). 

Alameda attorney Michael Lozeau is representing the plaintiffs in both the LRDP lawsuit and the CRT action, which Oakland attorney Stephan Volker is representing the group in the Helios lawsuit. 

The CRT facility, located toward the western end of the 236-acre lab complex at Blackberry Gate, would house in new, larger quarters a federal Department of Energy computing center now housed in leased space in downtown Oakland. 

The Helios building, at the opposite end of the lab and across from the recently completed Molecular Foundry building, would provide a permanent home for facilities now temporarily sited on the main UC Berkeley campus in Calvin Hall. 

And Calvin Hall itself is slated for demolition as part of the Southeast Campus Integrated Projects, which includes such facilities as a new joint office and meeting facility for the university’s law and business school and an underground parking lot, as well as the gym complex planned at the tree-sitter-occupied grove west of Memorial Stadium. 

Lozeau and Volker are also attorneys in the lawsuit challenging the EIR for those projects, on which a final decision is expected soon. 

McLaughlin, an environmental activist who co-founded the environmental group Save the Bay, said Tuesday that her concern with both of the new buildings was simply a question of location. 

“The university could put them in any of a number of other places,” she said. “We just don’t want Strawberry Canyon to become an industrial park.” 

Suggesting one possible site for the facilities, McLaughlin mentioned the university-owned Richmond Field Station, which is now undergoing a toxic waste cleanup from its time as the site of an explosives and munitions plant and as the disposal site for contaminated debris from a neighboring chemical manufacturing complex. 

University officials argued in the EIRs that they need the facilities on the 203-acre main lab campus. 

Lozeau said many of the concerns are the same for both the Helios and the LRDP lawsuit. “It’s really a question of whether so much development should go up on that hill,” he said. “Fires, earthquakes, landslides—if there are any risks in building in California, you have them all right there.” 

He said other concerns include health hazards from diesel truck exhaust as large numbers of trucks pass within 30 feet of homes in residential neighborhoods during construction, incremental impacts on the endangered Alameda Whip Snake and the question of whether the regents can legally delegate key decisions on financing and EIR approvals to its Committee on Grounds and Buildings.