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Council votes on Zeneca site clean-up and development

on September 25, 2019

Electrician and two-time cancer survivor Sherry Padgett could throw a baseball from her 49th Street cabling business and hit what Richmond residents call “the Zeneca site:” an eighty-seven-acre property that contains more than a century’s inheritance of hazardous waste from manufacturers including the now-defunct herbicide maker Stauffer Chemical and the European pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Padgett calls the chemicals on the site a “witch’s brew.”

Around 10 p.m. Tuesday, the City Council voted 5-2 to reverse its support for a cleanup plan that would require the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to excavate and remove the tainted soil and cinder from the Zeneca site. The council now backs a faster, cheaper plan that would leave much of the earth there and “cap” it under concrete barriers.

Six days ago, Councilmembers Demnlus Johnson III and Nat Bates had announced their proposal to switch Richmond’s support to the capping plan.

“This city is not financially as sovereign as some of you may think,” Bates said. “This city needs revenue. This community needs jobs. This is an opportunity for this city to be bold [and] creative to clean up this site.”

“There’s no such thing as a perfect project,” Johnson said. “But here we have individuals who are willing to check off the right boxes to come to the city of Richmond.”

The Irvine-based developer Shopoff Realty Investments, which plans to build apartments and commercial space on the Zeneca plot after cleanup, also backs the plan, and says it will give the city nearly $38 million in grants for schools, community groups, and improvements to locales like the Booker T. Anderson Community Center. During his presentation, company president William Shopoff said the firm would increase its community investment by about $8 million, language ultimately incorporated into the bill.

Former vice mayor and councilmember Jovanka Beckles criticized the money offer. “No amount of money can save you when you’re infected with cancer,” she said. Trying to entice the city with tens of millions of dollars is an insult, she added. “You’re saying that you think we’re stupid, you think we’re desperate.”

Shopoff says the development would generate an estimated $31 million in property taxes and $60 million in sales taxes yearly.

“We didn’t have to come to this site,” Shopoff said. “We came to this site because we thought it would create an interesting opportunity to create housing for California – housing that’s desperately needed.” The company would finish building the first homes in late 2022 or early 2023 under the capping plan, Shopoff predicted.

The original excavation solution had vocal community support when the council adopted it in 2018, and several people voiced a sense of betrayal that the body was considering supporting the capping plan instead. “Our city council members are proposing a resolution not of, by or for the people of Richmond,” Padgett said.

“Until it’s cleaned up, don’t put people on it, or were going to have our own Love Canal situation here down in Richmond,” said Eric Bloom, the chairman of a citizen advisory committee to DTSC, referring to the polluted landfill near Niagara Falls, NY.

The excavation alternative isn’t perfect: removed soil could still contaminate an off-site landfill, according to a 2018 report by the Oakland-based environmental consultant Terraphase Engineering.

“I think there’s some confusion about the science and that’s about all I want to say about it,” Shopoff told Richmond Confidential when asked about community members’ critiques.

“We’re not here to take undue economic risk. We’ve got lots of projects we could go do,” Shopoff said.

Mayor Tom Butt, Vice Mayor Ben Choi and Councilmember Jael Myrick voted yes despite their initial reservations about the capping plan. Councilmembers Eduardo Martinez and Melvin Willis voted against the resolution.

“I don’t want to be known as the person who allowed citizens of Richmond to live on top of a toxic waste site,” Martinez said.

“Developments have caused nothing but displacement…developments have led to huge displacement of black and brown communities,” Willis said.

Some community members stressed that they didn’t oppose the development, only a cleanup plan they saw as cutting corners to bring construction more quickly.

“Build on it. Build on it but don’t leave the hazards there,” Padgett said.

At the meeting, the city council also declared October 16, 2019 as Food Day, aimed at expanding access to healthy food and relieving hunger in the community. Food Day activities will take place in the North Richmond Farm from 11 to 2 that day, including healthy cooking demonstrations and nutrition education as well as food giveaways. The council also declared October 2019 as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Richmond.

In other action, the council entered into the record that last month it honored Elijah ‘Pumpsie’ Green at a community softball game. Green, a Richmond native, was the first African American baseball player to play for the Boston Red Sox.

The city of Richmond transportation division and Richmond’s bicycle-pedestrian advisory committee also invited the residents to celebrate California Clean Air Day at a lunchtime bike ride on October 2 at noon at City Hall.

3 Comments

  1. Deborah Bayer on September 27, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    A resolution supporting food day is nice, but no one will be able to grow food on the capped Zeneca site. Or plant trees. Or let children dig in the dirt. Thanks for the article though.

  2. John on September 30, 2019 at 7:51 pm

    I understand the community’s concern about leaving toxins in the ground but I’m not convinced that the excavation option makes the most sense.

    Other sites such as Marina Bay are built on capped contaminated soil and no one seems overly concerned about living there.

    And when contaminated soil is excavated and removed it doesn’t just magically disappear. It usually ends up at special disposal facilities in the Central Valley. I think there’s a pretty good economic justice argument to be made against sending all of our contaminated soil from the Bay Area to relatively impoverished Central Valley communities.

  3. ritchie cook on October 2, 2019 at 9:09 am

    This site historically has been a flood plain.Neither plan addresses this. No doubt if the “cap” is placed so will plenty of fill to raise the structures from flooding … Where will the water go? We in Atchison have no interest in receiving others flood waters. Once again transportation friendly, development should take place in downtown Richmond , Hilltop etc… Then too all existing structures should be retrofitted. Check out bayarearetrofit.com for info.

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