State Fines UC, Zeneca for Richmond Toxics Disposal

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:55:00 PM

The state has fined UC Berkeley and an international agropharmaceutical corporation a total of $510,000 for illegally disposing of toxic waste in Richmond, prompting outrage from Sherry Padgett, the woman who has spearheaded the battle to clean up the sites, because the total penalties for illegal disposal of more than 3,000 truckloads of soils contaminated with deadly organic chemicals and poisonous metals work out to less than $170 a load. 

According to the settlement agreement signed by officials of the university, Zeneca Inc. and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), Zeneca will pay a total of $225,000 while the university will pay $285,000. 

The funds will be evenly divided between the DTSC and Richmond BUILD, a city-sponsored program which trains young workers to install solar energy systems. 

The fines stem from the illegal disposal of contaminated earth—most of it from the university’s Richmond Field Station—at the adjacent site where a former Zeneca chemical plant complex had existed for a century. 

Richmond BUILD provides construction job training for high school graduates and GED recipients, with a focus on installation of solar energy systems. 

“It’s a wonderful program,” said Padgett, who has spearheaded the drive to clean up the university’s Richmond Field Station and the adjacent Zeneca site where a complex of chemical plants operated for a century. 

“But it’s an outrageous settlement,” she said. “Who decided on $510,000 as an adequate settlement for an illegal toxic waste dump on the San Francisco Bay shoreline?” 

Padgett, the late Ethel Dotson, Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and other activists led the successful battle to force the state to hand oversight of the cleanups to the DTSC. 

The illegal dumping was conducted during the period when the site was overseen by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, an agency without any staff expertise on hazardous chemicals and metals. 

But state Sen. Loni Hanock, who had led the legislative fight to replace the water board with the DTSC, praised the settlement. 

“We’ve come a long way since the Contra Costa County Division of Public Health called me to say that an unsafe cleanup was being conducted by the wrong state agency,” Hancock said 

“After public hearings, discussion and enforcement by the Department of the Toxic Substances Control, I am pleased that this settlement will provide money to an outstanding program that is giving the youth of Richmond job skills that prepare them for careers in the green economy,” she said. “It is important that resources go back to the impacted community. 

“There is still much work to do to ensure that these two sites are cleaned up to the required standards,” she added. “I will continue to work closely with the community, state and local agencies and the property owners to make sure that all the toxic issues are addressed.” 

According to the notices of violation issued by the DTSC in 2007, violations committed by the university and the Swiss corporation included: 

• Treatment of hazardous waste without a permit. 

• Disposal of hazardous waste at an unauthorized point. 

• Shipment of hazardous waste to an unpermitted facility. 

• Storage of hazardous waste without a permit or authorization. 

• Transfer of custody of hazardous waste to an unauthorized trucking firm. 

Two other allegations were lodged solely against AstraZeneca:  

• Failure to submit hazardous waste shipment manifests within 30 days. 

• Failure to properly characterize hazardous wastes, including organic compounds—PCBs and perchlorethylene (PCE)—as well as the hazardous metals mercury, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, copper and selenium. 

Acting DTSC Director Maziar Movassaghi also praised the settlement. 

“The payment to Richmond BUILD fulfills one of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s environmental goals of investing enforcement settlements in the communities where the alleged violations occurred,” he said. 

But at the same time as funds are flowing to the building programs, monies supporting the DTSC Community Advisory Group have been cut off by Cherokee Simeon Ventures, the would-be developers of the former Zeneca site, where 350,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil remain under a concrete cap. 

With hired scientific consultants, a transcriptionist and a program facilitator, members of the CAG had been able to challenge the developer-paid cleanup consultants, prompting the state to order additional testing which had uncovered still more contamination and extended the estimated cleanup time and effort. 

“The DTSC had said they would look out for our best interests, and this does not represent the community’s best interests,” Padgett said. 

“Every scientist who has examined this site has said it is one of the most complex sites they have ever seen, and it still hasn’t been properly characterized. We still don’t know everything that’s beneath the surface. And there’s still no cleanup plan,” she said. 

Padgett said she was also astounded that the state had only released two 2008 investigation reports on the violations at the same time as the settlement. “We have been asking for these for almost two years, and we’re only seeing them now that the settlement has already been signed. It’s outrageous.” 

Padgett said the CAG, which has repeatedly and futilely asked the DTSC about the violations, had been given no notice that settlement negotiations were under way. 

One long-time veteran of the toxic regulatory front expressed surprise that the settlement hadn’t mandated removal of the toxic material, a condition usually imposed in such settlement agreements. 

“Illegal dumping is the biggest violation they’ve got,” the expert said.  

For this newspaper’s initial story on the violations covered by the settlement, see the July 3, 2007, issue. A story on the hearing that lead to the change of oversight is in the Nov. 9, 2004, issue. Padgett’s own story is also in the Nov. 9, 2004, issue.