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Reshaped Helios Building Sparks Further Community Criticism

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 07:19:00 PM
Pamela Shivola and Carl Fryberg show what Shivola says are seismic and landslide hazards at the site where UC Berkeley and LBNL want to build the Helios lab on the slopes above Strawberry Canyon.
Richard Brenneman
Pamela Shivola and Carl Fryberg show what Shivola says are seismic and landslide hazards at the site where UC Berkeley and LBNL want to build the Helios lab on the slopes above Strawberry Canyon.

One after another, Berkeley residents voiced their frustration last week with the building that will house a program that is the brainchild of the nation’s energy secretary-designate. 

The dinner-hour Jan. 7 meeting called by UC Berkeley was to gather public comments on the redesigned Helios building, set to house the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), the alternative fuels research program conducted under the half-billion-dollar grant from BP, previously known as British Petroleum. 

Named for the Greek sun god, Helios has generated considerable heat, especially from environmentalists, Cal students and faculty critical of both BP and the possible consequences of research they say could lead to vast Third World plantations devoted to fueling America’s cars and trucks. 

But staff of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory didn’t come to answer questions last week. Instead, they were there to listen to a largely critical audience—so much so that UC Berkeley chemist David Chandler angrily responded to one critic, branding him a “selfish shit” and declaring, “We’ve got to have this building to save the world.” 

The critic, Cal graduate Jason Ahmadi, had been a participant in the Memorial Stadium tree-sit. He, in turn, singled out the presence at the meeting of Dan Mogulof, the university’s executive director of public affairs, saying, “that alone makes me think you’re lying.” 

Mogulof had presented the university’s case to the media during the tree-sit and the accompanying litigation. 

The most common argument from supporters of the proposed site was the need for interdisciplinary conversations, which would be facilitated by proximity to researchers working in other fields at the lab. 

Many criticisms echoed remarks made the last time the project was vetted by Berkeley’s citizenry. The earlier project, which had been approved by the UC Board of Regents, was withdrawn when soil problems were discovered at the original site. 

The building site was shifted to the west and the profile lowered compared to its earlier incarnation. 

Representing the EBI at the session was Susan Jenkins, the institute’s assistant director, who invoked the “daunting global energy crisis” and the mantle of national security as mandates for construction of the 144,000-square-foot, 720-foot-long lab on the edge of the hillside above Strawberry Canyon. 

Jenkins is no stranger to controversial research programs. She also administered the Syngenta/Novartis grant at Cal’s College of Natural Resources—a grant that was bitterly debated and even criticized by the outside academicians the university hired to review the issues raised in that debate. 

“The Helios concept was developed by Dr. Steve Chu,” she said. Chu is LBNL’s director, a post he is about to vacate to take the helm of the Department of Energy in the cabinet of President-elect Barack Obama. 

Jenkins said the fuel plant crops developed by EBI could be grown on the nation’s “38 million acres of non-cultivated agricultural land,” as well as a billion acres of marginal land worldwide. 

Her figures for domestic farmland fall in the range of acreage kept out of production by the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to take fragile cropland out of cultivation to prevent erosion. 

Oregon State University conservation biologist Patricia Muir has estimated that the CRP has reduced erosion on 37 million acres of sensitive lands by 93 percent, but, under the George W. Bush administration, farmers are allowed to take land out of CRP if they plant it with crops that would be converted to fuels. 

Most of the Helios supporters who spoke had roles in the program, including Walter Weare, an inorganic chemist doing postdoctoral work on producing fuels by using artificial photosynthesis. Weare said the building needed to be located at the lab to facilitate scientific interchange of ideas. 

But many critics said other sites would be better, given both the environmentally sensitive nature of Strawberry Canyon and what they said were hazardous conditions stemming from soil contamination, earthquakes, landslides and other hazards of the Berkeley hills. 

“I’m not against the project. I’m against the location,” said Joanne Draybeck of Oakland. “It’s not environmentally friendly.” 

Another location critic was retired UC Berkeley engineer John Shively, who had once served as administrator of the university’s Richmond Field Station, a site deemed more appropriate by several speakers. 

One backer of the Richmond site, Gianna Ranuzzi, also urged the university to consider the comments made during the earlier EIR process. 

One lab scientist, Phil Price, also criticized the location while supporting the research. Instead of building on a pristine site, he urged the university to consider placing the building on one of several other sites at the lab currently occupied by antiquated, vacant or temporary buildings. 

“Give us an alternative on the lab campus,” Price said. 

“If you’re so environmentally concerned, how can you possible support a site at this location?” asked Juliet Lamont, Sierra Club activist and a former lab worker. She said the university had also failed to adequately address climate change concerns raised by the building project as well as issues such as changes in a delicate watershed. 

Janice Thomas, who lives on Panoramic Hill, advocated for the Richmond site, which she said would be more accessible to scientists living in San Francisco or Marin counties as well as providing a pleasant environment right on the Bay Trail. 

“This is such a mistake to not seriously consider another site outside Strawberry Canyon,” said Hank Gehman. As for the need for proximity to other scientists, Gehman said, the same argument was used by opponents of locating other UC Berkeley labs subsequently successful at Los Alamos and Livermore. 

Martha Nicoloff said she was concerned in part because of the extensive truck traffic that would be generated by removing earth from the site on a route that added traffic to already congested University Avenue. 

Several speakers said that any review of the project should look at the cumulative impacts of all the construction projects now being planned for the university. 

At least two speakers mentioned concerned about possible air and water contamination from nanotechnology experiments that would be conducted at the building. 

Hillary Lehr, a student who was active in the opposition to the BP grant, called on the university to engage in more discussions with the public. “If you don’t engage,” she said, “how can we expect this project to really help save the world.” 

Friday is the last day for public comments, which may be e-mailed to the lab at 

For more information on the project, see the lab’s web page at Community/Helios/documents/index.