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Toxic legacy persists in Richmond Inner Harbor

on October 22, 2009

More than 40 years after the United Heckathorn chemical plant halted operations, its waste still taints the Richmond Inner Harbor.

Banned pesticides, primarily DDT and dieldrin, continue to poison the waterways, despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup efforts more than a decade ago.

The EPA finished dredging approximately 110,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Lauritzen and Parr canals in 1997. But EPA officials have known for years that they did not reach their cleanup goal.

“At the end of ’98, we found everything was meeting cleanup level. In ’99, things were not looking what they should be,” said Sharon Lin, the EPA’s current project manager for the United Heckathorn site. “Every year, the levels keep going up.”

Lin suspects that continual shipping activity has stirred up contaminated sediment.

“It’s just hard to swallow because we embarked on a such a big dredging project,” Lin said.

People continue to fish from the Inner Harbor, despite posted advisories.

People continue to fish from the Inner Harbor, despite posted advisories.

This month, the EPA launched its first fish survey since the dredging to assess the lingering pollution. It plans to have a cleanup decision by late 2010.

Lin said the EPA is most concerned with human and bird consumption of pesticide-laden fish. Eating DDT will not necessarily cause obvious health problems at first, Lin said, but can build up in the body to create chronic health problems later, including cancer.

Tamara Frank, who is coordinating the fish study, said that the nature of pesticide-related illnesses makes it hard to assess the problem.

“That’s one of the hard parts of this work is: how bad is bad?” said Frank, a subcontracted researcher for the EPA.

Frank recently collected sediment samples from the Lauritzen Canal and retrieved live mussels and plastic testing strips she had deployed a month earlier at nine locations throughout the harbor and channel. Lab workers are analyzing the samples for DDT and other contaminants. Frank said she’s expecting the results by early December.

Despite the EPA’s reinvigorated investigation, Richmond residents seem unaware of the lingering pollution.

Torm Nompraseurt, a community organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), worked with the EPA during its original work on the site in the 1990s to educate Laotian fishermen about the pollution. But he was surprised to learn that more than a decade later, the site was still contaminated.

Sharon Lin, EPA project manager for the United Heckathorn site, expects to have a cleanup decision by 2010.

Sharon Lin, EPA project manager for the United Heckathorn site, expects to have a cleanup decision by 2010.

“That means whatever the work they did, they didn’t do a good job,” said Nompraseurt, who was unaware of the EPA’s pending cleanup plans. “At that time, when [the EPA] did the project, they told us everything was fine.”

Despite fishing advisories posted in the channel, Nompraseurt said people continue to fish out of the harbor.

“Some of my family, they go fishing every day after work. Because of the bad economy, they have to find a way to subsidize food,” said Nompraseurt, who immigrated to Richmond as a Laotian refugee in 1975. “The way they adjust is to go fishing to provide food for their families.

“Fish contamination is bad in all of the Bay Area, but because of the DDT, it’s especially bad in Richmond,” Nompraseurt said.

In addition to drafting a cleanup plan, Lin wants the state to revise its fishing advisory for the Inner Harbor.

“It’s not having a lot of traction, to be honest with you,” Lin said of the existing advisory.

The United Heckathorn site was used to process and ship pesticides, primarily DDT, from 1947 until 1966, when the company went bankrupt. The Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation, a dry bulk marine terminal, currently owns and operates its shipping business from the site.

The California Department of Health Services detected chlorinated pesticides and metals in soil samples from the defunct United Heckathorn site in 1980. Five acres of land and about 15 acres of marine sediment were subsequently designated as a Superfund site, a classification governed by federal law that mandates the cleanup of hazardous materials and identifies parties potentially responsible for the pollution.

The United Heckathorn site has been on the EPA’s National Priority List since 1990.


  1. Lydia on October 24, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Great story. Best, lc

  2. […] for Richmond Confidential’s original coverage of the United Heckathorn story. Filed Under: Environment, Featured, Front, Health Tagged: DDT , dieldrin , fishing , […]

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