Years later, chemical company lot still a toxic stew
on November 9, 2009
An old man with a pair of binoculars leans against a wooden fence, intent on some unseen object inside the weedy Stege Marsh. When the tide’s up, the egrets and gulls come out and caw.
He’s standing on the edge of a paved trail that runs along the shore in Southern Richmond, where cyclists, joggers and bird-watchers often come to take in views of the San Francisco skyline.
He can’t get much closer to the birds, though. A chain-link fence encloses most of the marshlands, and metal signs warn passers-by to keep out.
Farther from the shore and the walking trail, beyond the marshes, workers in white jumpsuits are using weed-whackers to clear the brush that’s starting to grow through a white concrete sheet covering 30 acres of the lot. The cap is a quarter-inch thick and word is, it crunches under your feet like a thin sheet of ice. Under the cap lies the story of this area’s toxic past.
“It looks benign, you know,” says Sherry Padgett, shielding her eyes from the late-afternoon sun. Padgett works at a cabling shop on South 49th Street, across from this lot. From her second-story office, she can see across the entire site, over the marshes and out to the bay.
A real-estate development company called Cherokee-Simeon Ventures now owns the 85 acres that separate South 49th from the shores of the bay. When the developers bought the property in 2002, they named it Campus Bay. But the people who work around here – not to mention city officials, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Public Health, state Water Board, and Department of Toxic Substance Control – all call it the Zeneca site. Most everyone calls it a mess.
A TOXIC HISTORY
The problems here started miles away in a Sierra foothill mine.
The Stauffer Chemical Company bought the land in 1897 and made its business by trucking pyrite – fool’s gold – from its Sierra mine to Richmond to roast it down into sulfuric acid. In the 1950s, the company also started manufacturing chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Making sulfuric acid obviously means creating waste. In this case, the byproduct is a highly acidic ash-like substance, called cinders. According to a history of the site prepared in 2001 by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, Stauffer for years used the cinders as landfill, dumping the waste against Stege Marsh on the east of its property, and on what is now the University of California’s Richmond Field Station, a research facility, on the west.
The cinders are mostly made up of pyrite, but include toxic metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, and selenium – all of which appear on the state-produced Prop. 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.
By the time the Stauffer site finally closed down, the company had, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, formed into Zeneca, Inc., which has since merged into AstraZeneca, the world’s second-largest pharmaceutical manufacturer.
In 1997, as part of a company-wide reorganization, Zeneca shut down the Richmond site. The company ordered most of the buildings there – many of which stored chemicals and pesticides – razed. Only a few office buildings remain.
The next year, the state’s water board named the Stege Marsh a “high” priority on its list of the state’s most polluted hot-spots.
The water board ordered Zeneca to clean up the site, so the company hired a San Francisco-based environmental consultant called Levine and Fricke Recon to outline a clean-up plan. No strangers to Richmond, Levine and Fricke have coordinated similar remediation plans at Point Isabel and the inner harbor.
The $20 million plan, green-lighted by the water board in 2002, called for workers to dig up and load much of the contaminated soil into trucks, and take it to hazardous waste treatment facilities.
But it also – in a move activists would come to question the legality of – called for workers to excavate 300,000 cubic yards of the cinder-laced dirt from the southern end of the Zeneca property, and 50,000 cubic yards of soil from the adjacent UC field station, and mix it with ground-up limestone, aiming to neutralize its acidity. Once the soil was blended, workers spread it out over 30 acres, and “capped” it – covered it with a quarter-inch-thick top made of concrete and paper-mache. The cap is intended to repel rainwater, and keep the cinders from spreading out through the groundwater beneath.
According to a 2005 memo prepared by Levine and Fricke for the toxic substances department, the cap serves to “reduce infiltration, provide surface water and dust control, and prevent dermal contact.” The memo says the cap “will remain in place until the Site is redeveloped.”
NOT THAT SIMPLE
As the remediation work moved forward, people working in businesses around the harbor-front track began to grow skeptical of the clean-up. In 2004, a citizen group led by Padgett formed as the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Community Advisory Group to complain about the amount of dust being kicked up by the work. Some people worried, too, that the dust may contain toxic chemicals.
“I’d go out to sweep the parking lot, and it’d be different colors depending on what they were doing across the street,” Padgett said. “I knew it was bad when our white dumpster turned black.”
The department of toxic substances later stated in a report on health hazards at the site, that, “prior to 2005, air monitoring (if any) was not adequate to evaluate contaminant levels in dust.”
Padgett learned in late 2002 that she’d developed cancerous cartilage growths on her ribs and chest. Padgett suspects she was exposed to carcinogenic chemicals in the air during the clean-up, but acknowledges that it is impossible to link her cancer to any particular chemical from the Zeneca site. Nonetheless, her illness helped transform Padgett into the de facto leader of what has become a years-long fight.
Padgett and the citizen group complained to local government agencies that the water board wasn’t taking an active role in supervising the remediation work. The cause attracted a number of political allies, including State Sen. Loni Hancock, and together, in 2004, they forced the water board to cede its oversight duties at the Zeneca site to the Department of Toxic Substance Control.
The toxic substance department set out to review exactly what was done during the clean-up, and how. According to Barbara Cook, site supervisor for the Zeneca area, the department found what it called “major data gaps” about what kinds of toxins were still in the ground, and where.
“One of the problems was that (Zeneca) did a lot of this as a piecemeal approach,” Cook said. “So we didn’t understand where everything was at. So first we had to define the problem – what chemicals are there, and what impacts are there.”
The department required Zeneca to hire a team of geologists to test the soil and groundwater across the entire site. That testing, the results of which were released in 2006, ultimately showed that Lot 1 – which isn’t under the cap – contained unusually high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls and three Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride. Those chemicals are all included on the Prop. 65 list and are known to cause cancer.
The toxic substances department also looked back at the legality of the clean-up work, and in 2007, hit Zeneca and its neighbor, the University of California, with a list of clean-up-related violations. The department found that the two parties broke the law during by trucking hazardous material across their property lines, handling hazardous material without proper permits, and a host of other charges, mostly related to how workers transported soil from the university’s field station onto the Zeneca property to bury under the cap.
In June of this year, the department announced a fine of $225,000 for Zeneca, and $285,000 against the university. That money was split evenly between the toxic substances unit and a green-collar, city-run job-training program called RichmondBUILD.
The fines angered the Community Advisory Group, which includes Richmond’s mayor, Gayle McLaughlan. As the group’s president, Dan Schwab, put it, “it was a slap on the wrist.”
Peter Weiner, a real estate lawyer for the Paul Hastings Law Firm in San Francisco, who specializes in “brownfield” development, has been working with the community group pro bono. Weiner, too, called the department’s fines mild.
“Certainly the illegal disposal of hazardous waste is usually accompanied by larger civil penalties, or criminal prosecution,” Weiner said. “As a sophisticated company, (Zeneca) is supposed to know the law.”
According to a toxic substances department spokesperson, the agency is unlikely to adjust the fines, though, regardless of public opinion.
“(The department) evaluated the case on its merits,” spokeswoman Carol Northrup wrote in an email to Richmond Confidential. “The case is closed and will not be re-opened. However, nothing in that enforcement action resolves the parties’ liability and responsibility for continued site clean-up.”
AstraZeneca, when asked for comment, issued a statement on the June settlement:
“We are pleased to settle this matter on behalf of Zeneca, our predecessor company,” company spokeswoman Laura Woodin said, “and we believe the RichmondBUILD program will provide an invaluable mark on the community through the funds we have provided.”
Representatives from the UC field station did not return calls seeking comment.
The citizen group intends to meet Nov. 12 with the head of enforcement for the toxic substance control, Gale Filter, to grill the department about the fines.
IT ISN’T JUST HERE
Padgett pointed to Richmond’s demographics as one of the reasons the Zeneca clean-up, which is just one of several such projects around the city, has been slow to gain momentum.
“If this had happened in my neighborhood in Danville, are you kidding?” she said. “It’d be straightened out by now. But this community has so much on its plate to just get up in the morning and put food on the table, their focus is on survival.”
Schwab, the citizen group president, said manufacturers have been able to get away with polluting the city’s land and waters in part because of Richmond’s historic lack of community activism, as opposed to cities like Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, that have a strong history of environmental awareness.
The Zeneca site is only one of Richmond’s toxic hot-spots. According to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency Web site, the city is home to more than 20 active, state- or federally-monitored hazardous clean-up sites. Nearly all of them are along the city’s 32-mile coastline. Six toxic sites are located in the roughly two miles between Point Isabel, a popular park for dog-walkers, and the inner harbor.
“Richmond is sort of California’s version of a Rustbelt city,” Schwab said. “It’s like a world-class toxic waste site.”
NOT OVER YET
The Zeneca lot is now owned by the real-estate development partnership Cherokee-Simeon Ventures, which purchased the land in 2002. The developers once proposed building a 13-story apartment high-rise there, but that plan stalled out after word got out that the building would feature giant fans on the first floor to blow away the toxic vapors emanating up through the soil beneath.
McLaughlan, the city’s mayor, said she thinks it could be a long time before there’s any sort of construction there at all.
“I think it will be decades before the site is clean,” McLaughlan said in an email. “I most definitely think it should not be zoned as residential. The risk to future residents would be enormous, and the liability for the city would be enormous as well.”
McLaughlan added that she would oppose any plan that did not include doing away with the capped waste by trucking it to a hazardous waste treatment facility.
In March, the state’s Department of Public Health released a study that determined the site poses no immediate threat to the public, so long as it remains empty.
The site’s owners say they’ve yet to settle on what to do with the property. “We’re just considering our options based on the clean-up,” said Tom Kambe, a representative for Brooks Street, a real estate firm that’s working with the developers. “It’ll be market-dictated, and this is a good market.”
Kambe said the developers haven’t taken out any development applications with the city. They’ve released a draft “remedial action plan” for cleaning up the site, but it won’t be completed until 2010, at the earliest.
So with no real conclusion in sight, the lot sits vacant, save for the birds and animals in the marsh and the occasional workers inspecting the huge white cap. Meanwhile, the metal signs on the chain-link fence warning of pollution are starting to rust.
View Toxic Richmond in a larger map|Southern Richmond’s toxic sites|Click on the icons for a description of hazardous waste clean-up sites along the Richmond shoreline. Map by Ian A. Stewart.
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