Developing Richmond’s Zeneca Site means confronting a legacy of contamination

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Bill Simpich enjoys the panoramic views from the San Francisco Bay Trail in Marina Bay so much that he bought a house nearby about a year ago.

“I like it here,” said Simpich, walking his dog along the trail last month. “But if I had kids, I would have never moved here.”

Marina Bay used to be a brownfield, a 360-acre expanse of land contaminated with petroleum, lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals left behind by industrial manufacturing, including shipbuilding during World War II and metal and paint production after the war. In the 1980s, a portion of the site was “cleaned” up by developers: they buried the chemicals under a protective layer of soil and built an upscale residential waterfront community with apartments, condominiums and townhouses on the site.

Now, the city of Richmond is considering a similar redevelopment plan for an adjacent brownfield, located between Marina Bay and Point Isabel and known as the Zeneca site.

Once occupied by a Stauffer Chemicals, Inc. plant, which was later purchased by Zeneca Inc, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board deemed the site a “burdened property” more than a decade ago. That means no detached, single-family houses, hospitals or day care centers may be built on the property, and other residences may only be built following the approval of state environmental agencies.

See this timeline for a history of the Zeneca site.

But the Richmond Bay Specific Plan (RBSP)—a road map for future development of the city’s southeast shoreline approved by City Council earlier this month—envisions the 80-acre site as a fully developed residential area with single-family homes, multi-story townhomes, apartment complexes, courtyard buildings, senior housing and childcare centers—all despite the deed restrictions.

According to the RBSP, Richmond’s population is projected to increase by 1.2 percent in the next 15 years, exceeding the nation’s expected 0.8 percent growth rate.

The plan aims to provide homes for about 10,000 households—including the Zeneca site’s future residents—that could be added to the city within the next 30 years.

 

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Roughly two-thirds of Contra Costa County’s 63 brownfield sites are in Richmond, according to the Contra Costa County Adapting to Rising Tides Project, a climate change focused project of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Before a brownfield can be turned into a residential area, it must be cleared, or cleaned, of any remaining toxic chemicals. This problem has been a sticking point between the City of Richmond and the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for more than a decade.

While the DTSC has long envisioned the contaminated Zeneca site as commercial and industrial—with raised (as opposed to ground-floor) residential structures only a remote possibility—the city hopes to build a variety of houses on the land. Making the site primarily residential means cleaning it to a higher standard—with higher cleanup costs to match.

“It has been a long battle getting DTSC to see that the city has the right to look at our long-range plans for development in an open-ended way,” said city councilmember Gayle McLaughlin.

Last year, that changed. The DTSC agreed to the city’s vision for the land, and now the “design will dictate the cleanup,” said Richmond Director of Planning and Building Richard Mitchell.

But it is too early for Richmond to celebrate, as DTSC is still negotiating the cleanup plans with Zeneca—the company responsible for financing the mission—and it appears as if the company is reluctant to pay the full price.

In January 2016, an attorney with Edgcomb Law Group, LLP, representing Zeneca, wrote to DTSC director Barbara Lee that there is no basis for the agency to require the company to remediate the entire site to accommodate a ground-floor residential use.” The letter asked the agency “not to allow the City’s erratic land planning process” to dictate the cleanup.

The letter said that Zeneca has “reservations about future homes” at the site because of its long history of industrial and chemical manufacturing operations, its proximity to the Allied Propane facility on Seaport Ave., and the southeast shoreline area’s lack of infrastructure to support residential development, which, the firm said, would cost the city over $100 million.

The letter also said that Zeneca disagreed with the city’s claims that the company “misused, polluted and discarded” the site, as it spent $20 million on cleanup efforts in the early 2000s and is ready to commit another $30 million to future remediation efforts.

DTSC and Zeneca have not come to an agreement since that letter was sent, said Edgcomb attorney Bill Marsh.

Carolyn Graves, a member of the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group, which has spent more than a decade advocating for comprehensive toxic chemical removal from the site, said that it is “incomprehensible to the community” that the company AstraZeneca, PLC, which has over $50 billion in assets, would not pay for a thorough cleanup.

Marsh said that AstraZeneca does not share financial assets and liabilities with Zeneca Inc, an indirect subsidiary.

Graves said the community group is also concerned that DTSC is reluctant to press Zeneca out of fear that the company is “not going to do anything”—which could then place the burden of cleanup costs on taxpayers’ shoulders.

The RBSP takes this possibility into account. The plan refers to the city’s Toxic and Contaminated Sites policy, which states that brownfield remediation could involve seeking state and federal funds.

“If the state legislature allocates the money, it is a possibility” that such funds could be used in addition to—or even instead of—Zeneca’s assets to clean up the site, said Mitchell.

“In the past, state and federal funds have been used to remediate brownfield sites in instances where the responsible parties have disappeared,” he said.

A future developer could also end up paying for the cleanup. Real estate company Cherokee Simeon Venture I, LLC, purchased the site from Zeneca in 2002 in the hopes of redeveloping it. In 2007, Delaware-based redevelopment firm EFG-Campus Bay, LLC, loaned Cherokee Simeon $42 million for the cleanup, but the company could not repay the loan and declared bankruptcy in 2012. EFG-Campus Bay now holds a mortgage on the Zeneca site and would become the site’s owner in the event of foreclosure.

EFG-Campus Bay executive vice president Cameron Berton did not respond to questions about the company’s interest in the full-scale redevelopment of the site, but said via email that the company has “tracked the City of Richmond’s efforts as they relate to the Richmond Bay Specific Plan and coordination with DTSC and believes that those efforts are positive and necessary steps on the road to successful redevelopment of the site.”

 

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The first stage of the Zeneca site cleanup plan—which could begin in the next couple of years—involves treating two former evaporation ponds near the Stege Marsh, which were created in the 1960s and 1970s to store wastewater mixtures from the chemical plant’s industrial activities. If DTSC approves Zeneca’s plan to clean up the ponds, sometimes referred to as “fresh water lagoons,” more than 46,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sediment, or eroded material, will be excavated from the ponds. Close to 5,000 additional cubic yards will be stripped of chemicals onsite, and a protective layer of soil, called a “cap,” will be placed over that area to keep the remaining toxic compounds in place.

The RBSP envisions the cleaned-up lagoons as an open space for wildlife habitat.

DTSC Senior Hazardous Substances Scientist Lynn Nakashima said that much of the Zeneca site—the roughly 80 acres on which residential structures could be built—does “not necessarily” have to be completely chemical-free.

“Different types of contamination can accommodate different type of houses with respect to risk,” she said; the idea is to “try to decrease the exposure of residents to whatever contaminants may still remain on site.”

For example, to reduce the risk of VOCs—chemicals that may cause cancers, nerve damage and immune system dysfunction—“DTSC would like to see structures that are built on a podium” to reduce the chances of the compounds getting into the indoor air of homes, Nakashima said.

Complicating matters further, past cleanups have not fully eliminated risky chemicals. In a cleanup done ten years ago, arsenic-containing waste products from sulfuric acid manufacturing, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were treated or excavated from portions of the lot, but these and other chemicals are still in the ground today.

Should residents end up living on the site, they may come into contact with such compounds not only through inhalation, but through groundwater.

The Zeneca site’s groundwater contains high levels of VOCs and the known carcinogen arsenic, both “primary elements of concerns,” according to DTSC toxicologist Kimiko Klein.

Arsenic is present in multiple spots across the area’s 86 acres, according to tests run annually since 2005 by environmental contractors hired by Zeneca and approved by DTSC. In some spots, the concentration of arsenic in groundwater is up to 600 micrograms per liter (ug/L). Environmental Protection Agency guidelines consider anything above 10 ug/L a risk to human health.

Over the decade in which Zeneca’s environmental contractors have been monitoring the site’s groundwater, twice yearly tests have found occasional spikes in arsenic concentration, according to documents accessible through DTSC’s public online database EnviroStor.

Those periodic spikes occur because arsenic is mobile in groundwater, said Stephen Linsley, Environmental Compliance Supervisor for the West County Wastewater District and a member of the Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group.

“Water in the ground moves it,” Linsley said. “It moves up and down, sideways, all around.”

DTSC did not directly respond to a request for explanation of the spikes in groundwater arsenic levels at the site. “Review of groundwater data should be evaluated in the context of groundwater flow direction [and] concentrations of surrounding wells,” said Nakashima in response to the request.

Linsley said that once contaminants like arsenic are in groundwater, it is difficult to eliminate them unless the surrounding soil and sediment is completely removed.

But Daniel Murphy, Supervising Hazardous Substances Engineer at DTSC, said that arsenic in soil is less concerning than arsenic in water, because the compound is “immobile” in soil. For this reason, soil at the site is tested less frequently than the groundwater, he said.

Other experts offer a more cautious perspective.

“Very little work has been done on the mobility of arsenic in soil systems, and credible reports on soil-based health effects are quite limited,” said John Jemison, professor of soil and water quality at the University of Maine.

In fact, test results available in EnviroStor show periodic spikes in the soil concentration of chemicals such as arsenic, even in areas of the site that have already been cleaned up, including the East Stege Marsh, which shares its border with the lagoons. Even though contaminated sediment was removed from the marsh in the early 2000s, tests showed arsenic levels of 26 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) in marsh sediment in 2010 and 340 mg/kg in 2013—a more than tenfold increase.

“We believe that groundwater from the lagoons or other spots of the Zeneca site has recontaminated that soil,” Linsley said. 

Murphy did not respond to a request to confirm whether recontamination may be taking place at the site.

Linsley is not alone in contending that it is difficult to draw a line between groundwater, soil and sediment.

Sites with “more than one medium” contaminated are “a regulatory minefield,” said Liz Tucker, director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog.

Moreover, said Tucker, who is also the author of a 2013 report critical of some of DTSC’s practices, when soil and water are both contaminated DTSC sometimes asks the polluter to clean up the soil but leaves the water cleanup to state water regulators—or vice versa.

That’s because “companies find it cheaper to pay lawyers to fend off a more comprehensive cleanup of both soil and water,” and DTSC doesn’t have the resources to push back, she said. “This is happening in almost every project where the responsible party doesn’t want to clean up,” Tucker said.

DTSC has faced other criticisms, as well. In an October 2016 report, an independent review panel recommended that the agency work on its “accountability and transparency,” by taking such steps as improving and updating its online database and search engine EnviroStor, so that the public can track cleanup activities on several hundreds contaminated sites.

 

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Of the dozens of chemicals detected at the Zeneca site, arsenic and VOCs pose the greatest health risk. The site also contains pesticides; elevated levels of heavy metals including cobalt, nickel, lead, copper, mercury and selenium; and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), according to Klein.

Hover over this map to see the chemicals of primary concern’s locations and concentration in groundwater at the Zeneca site:

 

How thorough the next phase of cleanup should be and what concentration of the remaining chemicals is safe remains a grey area. Cleanup standards sometimes change—as they did in 2001, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the “safe” level of arsenic in groundwater from 50 to 10 ug/L.

Because arsenic is found naturally in soil, individual states set their own cleanup guidelines, which range from as low as 0.039 to as much as 40 mg/kg. California’s target for arsenic in soil at residential sites is 0.07 mg/kg, but DTSC and Zeneca contend in proposed cleanup plans for the lagoons that 16 mg/kg is reasonable because it is the metal’s natural concentration at the site.

If any of the currently detected compounds will be left on site, they may be buried under a cap, which can be a protective layer of soil, asphalt or concrete, according to EPA regulations. Caps are relatively inexpensive and “a safe place to isolate contaminated material,” according to the 2012 EPA Citizen’s Guide to Capping.

“It is a reliable method, as long as the cap is not disturbed,” said UC Berkeley professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Nicholas Sitar.

Digging by people and animals, erosion and cracks can damage a cap, and holes in a cap can allow water to reach the contaminated material beneath. Rising sea levels and earthquakes can also destabilize caps, and expose the protected materials.

In response to orders from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which oversaw the Zeneca site before DTSC took over in 2005, Zeneca placed a cap on the site’s 30-acre area in 2001 and 2002. The cap—which Community Advisory Group members call “papier maché”—is made of cellulose, fibers, cement and water and was intended to be a temporary solution until a final cleanup plan is approved.

Graves said the Community Advisory Group opposes the DTSC’s plan to install more caps, mainly because doing so would mean that toxic chemicals remain on the site.

A cap also places “a disproportional burden on future property owners,” said Linsley.

Future owners would need to keep track of deed restrictions on the site’s land use, monitor the cap, and make sure that fencing and warning signs limit access to the site, and “accidental digging” during future construction or maintenance work would always pose a risk, he said.

Less than 30 years after caps were installed in Marina Bay, “private owners have not been properly informed about their deed restrictions and the city has dug up soil that was supposed to be left in place,” Linsley said.

In 2013, for instance, Smith Denison Construction Co. dug a five-foot deep hole for a street light pole foundation in a capped portion of Regatta Boulevard without DTSC approval. A breach in the cap was later discovered by an engineering consulting company hired by the city to conduct an annual inspection of the deed-restricted area, according to a report posted to EnviroStor.

 

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Walking his dog back home along the San Francisco Bay Trail, Marina Bay resident Bill Simpich stopped to comment on the Zeneca site.

“I would rather see this area fenced and restricted for access,” he said.

While it’s nice to stroll, run or ride a bike along the trail, it didn’t seem wise to stick around for more than a couple of hours, he said, because no one will ever know how clean the area really is.

“Getting all the facts on the toxic site is very difficult,” he said, “especially when it comes to human health.”

 

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