UC Illegally Buried ‘Thousands of Truckloads’ of Toxic Soil in Richmond State Says

July 3, 2007 – By Richard Brenneman

UC Berkeley and a Swiss multinational must clean up thousands of truckloads of toxic-laden soil illegally buried at the Richmond site of a planned 1,330-unit housing complex, state officials ordered Friday.

“What we had feared has been verified,” said Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley, Richmond). “It confirms my fears and the fears of the neighbors, which have been shown to be terribly correct.”

Much of the contaminated earth and cinders buried at Campus Bay came from the adjacent, university-owned Richmond Field Station, according to a pair of certified letters sent to the university and AstraZeneca.

The letter to UC Berkeley and the Swiss agro-pharmaceutical conglomerate from Charlene Williams, chief of the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC) Enforcement and Energy Response Program for Northern California, outlined the violations.

She also ordered the university and AstraZeneca to begin to establish “within 15 days of receipt of the Summary of Violations” a schedule for removing and treating thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil from a site where 1,330 homes had been planned atop a small mesa of contaminated earth.

Much of that soil had been transferred there from the university’s adjacent Richmond Field Station.

The order confirms the suspicions of local activists like Ethel Dotson and Sherry Padgett, who had charged that another state agency had bungled its oversight of a massive cleanup at the sites between 2002 and 2004.

That effort was overseen by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has since ceded control to the DTSC.

University officials had argued against the transfer of regulatory oversight, demanded by local activists in part because the water board has no staff toxicologists—scientists trained in evaluating hazardous substances and their treatment—while the DTSC is well-equipped with the experts.

“The university and AstraZeneca both said things were fine. Now we know that was incorrect. They were not doing just fine,” said Hancock, who said that at least 3,000 truckloads had been illegally buried at the site.

Padgett said the total could be even larger.

Alleged violations cited by the DTSC for both the university and AstraZeneca include:

  • 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, and
  • 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 and
  • Failure to properly characterize hazardous wastes

Among the contaminants cited were organic compounds—PCBs and perchlorethylene (PCE)—as well as the hazardous metals mercury, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, copper and selenium.

Penalty issue

While no penalties are specified, the violation notices state that nothing in the letters would “preclude the DTSC from taking administrative, civil or criminal action as a result of the violations.”

Padgett, an activist with Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD), worked next to the sites during the massive cleanup locals dubbed “the big dig.”

While praising DTSC for ordering the removal of the contaminated earth, Padgett asked, “Do they pay a penalty, or are they going to be allowed to negotiate their way out of it?”

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin agreed. “What was upsetting was that there was no penalty issued for putting our people at risk,” she said.

One of the early advocates of a handover of regulatory oversight from the water board to DTSC, McLaughlin did hail the letters as a positive step.

“At least the DTSC is rising to the task of identifying what went wrong,” she said. “They need to be very clear in their instructions to both keep the community safe and make sure there are no more negative impacts” on the environment.

“It’s an opening that allows the right kind of dialog to take place.”

McLaughlin made the long history of contamination of both sites and a call for regulatory oversight a central issue in her election to the City Council in 2004. She was elected mayor last year.

Padgett and McLaughlin are two members of the Community Advisory Group (CAG) established by DTSC to monitor the cleanup at the site, which is being supported in part by funding from Cherokee-SImeon negotiated by BARRD attorney Peter Weiner.

The group continues to question the adequacy of information provided by the university, which recently declined a request to attend a meeting of the group’s toxics committee.

CAG Chair Whitney Dotson, who grew up in Parchester Village, a segregated housing development near the site, said he hoped the DTSC would maintain a rigorous follow-through.

“I am concerned because the university has been able to make things disappear if they’re done quickly enough,” he said.

Contaminated past

Both sites along the Richmond shoreline southeast of Marina Bay had been targeted for massive development, despite century-long legacies of chemical manufacturing using highly toxic substances.

The easternmost Campus Bay site housed a chemical manufacturing complex from 1897 to 1997, which included among its products a variety of agricultural poisons and fertilizers as well as other compounds. Some uranium processing also occurred, though just how much remains unclear.

Just to the northwest, the university’s Richmond Field Station (RFS) had been the site of a plant that manufactured explosives and ammunition using a compound of mercury, a toxic metal.

Further complicating the picture was the disposal of wastes from the chemical plants at Campus Bay site on the property now occupied by the RFS.

Much of the wastes came in the form of cinders from iron pyrites, fool’s gold processed at the chemical plants for the manufacture of sulfuric acid. The cinders contain a range of hazardous metals.

A 1,331-unit condo and apartment complex had been planned for Campus Bay by Cherokee-Simeon, a joint venture of Bay Area developer Simeon Properties and Cherokee Investment Partners, a company which bankrolls projects on reclaimed hazardous waste sites.

Those plans are currently on hold.

University plans

UC Berkeley had partnered with Simeon Properties to transform much of the Richmond Field Station—located between Campus and Marina bays—into a corporate and academic research park dubbed Bayside Research Campus.

Plans called for between 1 million and 1.5 million square feet of new buildings on 70 of the field station’s 152 acres to provide a focus for joint ventures between university scientists and the corporate world.

Research parks are an increasingly common feature of universities which are turning to corporate alliances to capture revenues from patents to replace the dwindling share of college pasts paid for by taxpayers.

During a February, 2005, Richmond City Council meeting which ended in a vote calling for DTSC oversight, Mark B. Freiberg, director of the university’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, told councilmembers the school was quite happy running its own RFS cleanup under Water Board supervision and urged a vote against the resolution calling for the regulatory handover.

Freiberg repeated almost word-for-word the statement in an earlier email to the council from university public relations Director Irene Hegarty, which claimed the RFS had been included in the council resolution only because of its “confusion” with Campus Bay—a point McLaughlin refuted.

The council then voted unanimously to ask the state Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees both agency, to hand jurisdiction over both sites to the DTSC—which became official on May 13, 2005, thanks in part to the efforts of Hancock, who had convened a legislative hearing at RFS to examine both sites.

According to the university’s April, 2004, call for developers, “the development of the site will be targeted to those University-related or private sector entities involved in industrial, scientific, or technological research.”

Though construction had been planned to start in July 2006, the change in regulatory oversight and subsequent reevaluation by DTSC forced the university to table its development plans.

Critical period

All of the actions cited by the DTSC occurred between 2002 and 2004, when most of the buildings at the AstraZeneca were demolished, ground into powder and buried at the site.

Work was also underway simultaneously at RFS, with the university conducting its own cleanup under the water board’s supervision.

According to the DTSC, the university used at least nine trucking companies which didn’t possess the required state hazardous waste handling registrations: American Pacific, Baires Trucking, Chapman Trucking, G.A. Grau, Hernandez Trucking, L&M Express, Mark Dross Trucking, Marzette Transportation and Remedial Transportation.

According to the letter sent to Greg Haet, the companies weren’t registered for all or part of the time they were hauling wastes from the site.

Only one such violation was charged to AstraZeneca, the use of Marchbanks trucking, which was unregistered when it hauled two loads of hazardous waste in August, 2002.

Some of the violations charged to AstraZeneca included burial of more than 2,000 of truckloads of improperly treated waste from the university site beneath the capped site where the housing development was planned.

Just what will happen to the waste remains an issue.

Padgett says she is concerned because the material has been intermixed at the site with the product of other excavations, including digs conducted in the shoreline marsh at the Campus Bay site.

“How could they ever identify it again? It’s all mixed together,” she said.

Most of the RFS soils were contaminated with metals above the levels allowed for storage beneath the mesa at Campus Bay, 350,000 cubic yards of earth and cinder capped with a thin layer of mixed cement and paper.

Most of the waste had originated at the plants formerly located at Campus Bay rather than the university site’s mercury-based explosives plant.

AstraZeneca bears responsibility at Campus Bay because it was the last operator of the plants there. The site is currently owned by Cherokee-Simeon, which had planned the housing project—which consisted of high-, mid- and low-rises.

Because of volatile hazardous chemicals on the site, the proposal had called for fans beneath some of the buildings to blow away any accumulating toxins, as well as garages on the ground floors of many of the structures. No plants could be grown for human consumption of the site’s soil.

The Campus Bay cleanup was conducted by LFR Levine-Fricke, an Emeryville multinational firm specializing in toxic waste cleanups.

James Levine, formerly a principal in LFR Levine-Fricke, is now a developer, planning to build a casino/resort complex at Richmond’s Point Molate, another site with a history of contamination dating to its past as a U.S. Navy refueling station.

Levine had left the firm prior to the cleanup.

The cleanup plan, formulated while he was still with the firm, cost AstraZeneca only about $20 million by calling for burial of treated wastes at the site, rather than hauling them off to a licensed hazardous waste disposal facility.

That plan initially saved the chemical conglomerate an estimated $80 million of the $100 million it had budgeted for the cleanup.

Noting that the letters DTSC sent were primarily concerned with events at the field station, Padgett said she hoped more action would be coming from the agency addressed to events at Campus Bay.

Berkeley Daily Planet, July 3, 2007