Tarnel Abbott lives about a mile away from a site once occupied by a plant that manufactured industrial and agricultural chemicals, next to the San Francisco Bay Trail and the suspended Berkeley Global Campus. She often comes here to watch birds hunting for food in the Stege Marsh wetland.
“Poor guy, don’t eat this fish. It is poisoned,” said Abbott, looking at a great blue heron while at the marsh earlier this month.
From the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, Stauffer Chemical Company and later Zeneca Inc. (which purchased Stauffer in 1970), used the marshland as a dump site for the waste products of industrial manufacturing. Chemical production at the site stopped in 1997, but about 86 acres of land contaminated with toxic chemicals were left behind.
In the early 2000s, in response to orders from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, Zeneca contractors excavated the soil in certain areas, treated it and then buried it under a temporary “cap” made of cellulose, fibers, cement and water and designed to prevent chemicals from leaching into the surrounding soil and groundwater. Residents call the cap “papier maché.”
In 2005, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) took control of the site; two years later, the agency issued a document stating that Zeneca had violated the state’s Hazardous Waste Control Act, because it had treated and disposed of hazardous wastes improperly and without authorization from environmental agencies.
Now, nine years later, a remediation plan for the remainder of the site is under discussion, and concerned Richmond residents like Tarnel Abbott are watching the process closely.
Earlier this month, Abbott and other members of the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group—an organization that has spent more than a decade advocating for the removal of all toxic chemicals from the site—submitted public comments to a proposed plan to remediate the site’s evaporation ponds. The ponds comprise six acres of “fresh water lagoons” near the Stege Marsh that Stauffer created in the 1960s and 1970s to treat and store wastewater mixtures from industrial activities.
Environmental contractors, working for Zeneca under DTSC supervision, have run more than a decade’s worth of tests that have shown pesticides, elevated levels of metals (including arsenic, lead, copper, mercury and selenium), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the lagoons. Last year, Zeneca proposed a cleanup plan that would involve excavation and removal of 46,400 cubic yards of contaminated soils and sediments, with on-site treatment of 4,600 cubic yards and capping of the entire six-acre area occupied by the lagoons.
The proposed cleanup, described in a draft feasibility study, would cost Zeneca over $20 million, according to an estimate the company presented in a public meeting held in August.
But members of the community group criticized the plan for not guaranteeing complete removal of all toxic chemicals from the area.
Abbott called the plan “a Band-Aid.”
“The Zeneca site is filled with complex toxins,” said Richmond City Council member Gayle McLaughlin, who is also a member of the community group. “I feel strongly that they need to be trucked away to a licensed hazardous waste facility,” she said.
Stephen Linsley, Environmental Compliance Supervisor for the West County Wastewater District and a member of the community advisory group, said the toxic chemicals that pose the greatest threat vary by species. PCBs, mercury and arsenic are most threatening to birds, for example, and pesticides such as DDT can pose the greatest threat to crabs and other invertebrates. All of these substances are found at the site.
The community group members have cited, as further cause for concern, research by UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara scientists linking the types of heavy metals found at the site to genetic damage, endocrine disruption and tumors in mudsuckers and Atlantic silverside fish.
Tabbott and fellow community group members are also worried about dangerous level of arsenic. Zeneca environmental contractor Arcadis has found elevated levels of the carcinogenic metal ranging from 0.8 mg up to 5000 mg per kg in different layers of soil.
UC Berkeley public health professor emeritus Allan Smith said arsenic must be ingested to cause harm. This could happen through drinking water contamination or when children play in contaminated soil, he said.
Bill Marsh, an attorney with San Francisco-based Edgcomb Law Group, LLP, which represents Zeneca, defended the company’s cleanup approach.
“Zeneca’s remedial plan was based on extensive investigation and evaluation, and was developed based on input from DTSC and community stakeholders,” said Marsh.
After reviewing the public’s comments, DTSC may revise or approve the proposed cleanup plan, “depending on how significant the changes are,” said California Department of Toxic Substances Control media information officer Russ Edmondson.
If the document is approved, Edmondson said, Zeneca will begin gathering cleanup permits from “all appropriate local, state and federal agencies,” a process that could take one to two years.
The six acres of fresh water lagoons comprise only a fraction of the Zeneca site’s 86 acres. About a half of the contaminated area has been under a temporary cap since the early 2000s, which has some residents worried about the risk of re-contamination.
Edmundson said the cap will remain in place until a final remedy is “selected and implemented.”
The recently proposed cleanup levels were determined with the whole area slated for commercial or light industrial use. But if parts of the site become residential developments—as the City of Richmond’s Richmond Bay Specific Plan (RBSP) proposes over the next 15 to 30 years—a thorough cleanup will be needed, according to an August 2016 study by the DTSC.
The RBSP, a part of the General Plan that establishes urban design guidelines, policies and regulations for a 500-acre portion of the Richmond Bay, has yet to be approved. A final draft is set to be adopted by the City Council in December.