Newest Toxic Metal Discovery Poses Richmond Site Worries

By Richard Brenneman
Monday July 14, 2008 - 04:41:00 PM

The ongoing struggle over the future of two contaminated sites on the southeast Richmond shoreline has heated up again after the discovery of yet another contaminant. 

Beryllium is the newest addition to a long list of synthetic and natural contaminants found at the site where chemicals were manufactured and metals smelted for a century. 

The site formerly owned by Zeneca, a leading multinational agrochemical giant was scheduled to become a high-rise residential complex until worried activists, aided by two state legislators and the future Richmond mayor, forced a regulatory hand-off that has resulted in more complex and costly cleanup efforts. 

The handover has also resulted in intensified cleanup efforts at the UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station, adjacent to the Zeneca site and itself once the site of a munitions plant. 

The Community Advisory Group (CAG) is giving input to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the agency supervising cleanup operations at several sites in the area. CAG members said they didn’t learn of the presence of beryllium processing at the site until this year. The metal is toxic, and was processed in the same building also used for uranium experiments. 

“We keep peeling back the onion, and the information only seems to come from CAG members,” said Eric Blum, a CAG member who owns a nearby business. 

Ethel Dotson, who died of cancer last November, first discovered that uranium had been processed at the site, and it was she who began the process that lead to creation of the CAG. 

Michael Esposito, a retired UC Berkeley scientist who chairs CAG’s Toxics Committee, said beryllium’s toxicity has long been recognized, and the lightweight metal is easily spread through the air. Cases of poisoning have reported a mile or more from sites where it was used, he said. 

Esposito said employees at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were poisoned by forgotten dust remaining from previous operations. 

Sherry Padgett, who works near the site and has suffered from a variety of tumors, said beryllium and uranium were both handled in a structure plant workers called the “Be Building,” named for the abbreviation of the metal’s name used in the periodic table of elements. 

The CAG, bankrolled by the current owners and would-be developers of the Zeneca site, has hired two cleanup consultants who are conducting their own independent evaluations of the sites. 

Community activists, including Dotson and her brother Whitney, future Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Padgett, UC Berkeley professor Claudia Carr, joined by state Assemblymembers Loni Hancock and Cindy Montanez, eventually forced the state to transfer jurisdiction of the Zeneca and university sites away from the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

Unlike the DTSC, which is staffed with scientists trained in toxics, the water board has no toxicologists, a sore point with the activists. 

But some CAG members have grown impatient with the DTSC, while Barbara J. Cook, the DTSC officer supervising the cleanups, said that with a site like Zeneca where chemical factories operated for a century, the record will never be complete. 

Peter Weiner, an attorney with the San Francisco firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, has been representing the CAG on a cost-free pro bono basis. 

Thursday night he asked Cook whether the state had “used all its awesome authority to get all the information” about the history of the plant from AstraZeneca-the last company to have owned the plant, a spinoff of long-time owner Imperial Chemical Industries of England. 

Cook fired back that members of Weiner’s own profession had successfully lobbied for a seven-year limit on mandatory retention of public records. She said the state had asked for the information, and requested the CAG to provide her “with any information I don’t have.” 

Members also asked what the DTSC planned to do with any fines collected from a June 29, 2007, letter from DTSC to UC Berkeley and Zeneca for multiple violations of state law stemming from the illegal disposal of at least 3,000 truckloads of contaminated soil, with two-thirds being transfers from the Richmond Field Station to the Campus Bay site, where they are buried on site. 

“Our request is that any fines come to the Richmond southeast shoreline area to the extent allowed by regulations,” Padgett said. 

Joe Robinson, another CAG member, said that the university’s lack of participation in the CAG process has been disturbing, adding that “we’d like to welcome UC to our meetings so we can keep communications open.” 

The future of the Campus Bay site remains an open question, with a plan for a 1,330-unit high-rise housing development off the table-at least for the moment. Also off the table are the university’s plans for a million-square-foot-plus corporate/academic research park at the university’s site. 

But Cherokee Simeon Ventures, the partnership of Bay Area developer Simeon Properties and Cherokee Investment Partners, a national firm specializing in developments on rehabilitated toxic sites, may be moving forward with a proposal. 

Tom Kambe, Cherokee Simeon’s site project manager, told CAG members he is working on a presentation on the CEQA process which should be ready for the group’s October meeting. 

The CEQA process, spelled out in the California Environmental Quality Act, is the essential first step in the development process, and provides a mechanism for assessing potential negative impacts arising from the development process. 

Information on the DTSC-supervised cleanup on the Campus Bay site may be found here: www.envirostor.dtsc.ca.gov/public/profile_report.asp?global_id=07280002. For a look at information presented to the CAG, click on the link labeled “Community Involvement.” 

For similar information on the Richmond Field Station, see: www.envirostor.dtsc.ca.gov/public/profile_report.asp?global_id=07730003.