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Mayor Tom Butt looks at the sign warning about the presence of chemicals at an empty lot near a residential area on East Richmond Avenue. Photo by Julia Vassey

Real estate company stores toxic soil in Richmond neighborhood

on October 4, 2016

Residents of an apartment complex on East Richmond Avenue were caught off guard when they saw a big pile of dirt covered with plastic sheets at an empty lot next to their buildings more than a week ago—along with a sign warning that the dirt is contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a class of toxic compounds classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as probable human carcinogens that can also cause lung irritation, skin rash and developmental delays in children.

Richmond mayor Tom Butt, who lives less than half a mile from 505 Canal Boulevard, wrote in his e-forum last Thursday that the company “dumped hundreds of tons of PCB-contaminated soils excavated from a site in Emeryville without informing the City of Richmond and without applying for the required grading permit.”

The contaminated soil was brought to the empty lot at 505 Canal Boulevard by Emeryville-based Wareham Development, a real estate development and property management firm that owns the lot.

The soil was excavated from a parking garage under construction at the site of the EmeryStation West transit project in Emeryville; according to the Mitigated Negative Declaration filed by the City of Emeryville for the project in 2009, soil beneath a “portion” of the project site is contaminated with PCBs.

In a letter sent to the mayor’s office last Friday, Wareham Development’s executive Chris Barlow disagreed with Butt’s allegation that the soil was “dumped,” saying that soil was placed there for “temporary storage.”

According to Barlow’s letter, the soil contained toxins “below actionable levels.”

The storage was approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the letter said, and “two sets of test results conducted by an unspecified professional environmental specialist” were provided to the City of Richmond’s director of planning and building services, Richard Mitchel.

But an email sent last Friday to Mayor Butt from Bruce H. Wolfe, the executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board, disputed this account. “This offsite temporary contaminated soil stockpiling was never authorized by the Water Board,” wrote Wolfe.

“PCBs remain one of our highest priority pollutants to control, so we plan to drill down on this situation to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Wolfe added.

Mitchel confirmed that Wareham Development provided the city with results of tests on the soil, but said he did “not have the ability to say whether they are below actionable levels.”

Russ Edmondson, Media Information Officer with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the state agency “has never received information confirming the origin of the stockpiled soil located at 505 Canal Boulevard nor data showing the soil’s chemical compositions and concentrations.”

Point Richmond residents expressed frustration over the situation and called for immediate removal of the soil.

“Nobody notified us that the contaminated soil would be stored here,” said resident Raquel Donoso.

A sign that read “Danger PCBs” was placed right next to the pile, but “to see it you have to go behind the fence and walk right on this site,” said Donoso’s husband, Edward Muniz.

“We don’t want any extra carcinogens in the area on top of what we already have in Richmond,” said resident Emilie Hofmann. “Families with children live here, people walk their dogs here,” she said.

Washington Elementary School is located a block away from the site. Principal Lisa Levi said that she has already received a call from a concerned parent.

“The district will look into the matter and will take any necessary steps to assure the safety of our students and staff,” said West Contra Costa Unified School District communications director Marcus Walton.

In the email sent last Friday to Mayor Butt, Barlow promised that Wareham Development would remove the soil this week.

In his e-forum, Mayor Butt promised to take steps to prevent similar situations in the future.

“Unfortunately, Richmond has gained a sort of ‘wild west’ reputation,” he said, “where the word on the street is that permits are not required and codes are not enforced.”


  1. Catherine on October 4, 2016 at 8:43 am

    There is no such street as “Point Richmond Avenue.” I think you mean East Richmond Avenue. Please correct.

    • Julia Vassey on October 4, 2016 at 10:29 am

      Thank you for pointing out! Fixed!

      • Catherine on October 4, 2016 at 11:40 am

        Thanks for fixing!

  2. […] and creating an impenetrable “super block” that alienates residents. Butt noted in this Richmond Confidential piece that his city is battling a sort of “Wild West” reputation that allows some to […]

  3. ritchie cook on October 7, 2016 at 5:23 am

    What is to be done with these people? Maybe it should be dumped in his front yard. Criminal

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