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California backs Council, developer preference for Zeneca cleanup plan

on October 29, 2019

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) on Friday announced its selection of a cleanup plan for one of Richmond’s most notorious brownfields: an industrial site located on the city’s south shoreline, once occupied by a succession of corporate tenants including Stauffer Chemical Co. and pharmaceutical company Zeneca Inc.

The plan will excavate contaminated soil and install barriers in areas where tainted soil will be left in place. It would take about eight fewer years to implement and involve tens of thousands fewer truck trips’ worth of excavated earth than the cleanup alternative Richmond’s south shoreline community has championed, according to a DTSC statement.

Soil and water at the Zeneca Inc. site contain pesticides, hydrocarbons like those found in coal and crude oil, and chemicals like those in coolant fluids. Eleven of those substances are known  to cause cancer, while others are associated with a variety of other conditions. Within 60 days, Zeneca must submit to DTSC a strategy for implementing the approved plan, according to the department’s statement.

“This cleanup allows this land to be used to create needed housing and ensures that members of the community and people who live, work or play on or around the site are protected,” said Meredith Williams, DTSC’s acting director, in the statement.

Zeneca said in a statement it is “pleased” with DTSC’s choice. “DTSC’s approval is an important step towards Zeneca’s ability to realize its long-standing goal of completing remediation of the…site for future beneficial reuse and it looks forward to commencing the remedial work,” the statement said.

For over twenty years Richmond Panhandle and Annex residents have clashed with California agencies – first the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Control Board, and most recently DTSC – in a campaign to force them to neutralize the Zeneca site to their satisfaction. Now, a developer has said it plans to build $65 million in apartments, shops and restaurants on the site after its remediation.

All five potential cleanup plans Zeneca pitched to DTSC met baseline standards the department laid out, but opposing camps coalesced around two of them. On one side, community activists backed a plan that would excavate more contaminated soil than any other plan. Richmond’s City Council, DTSC and the developer – the  Irvine-based Shopoff Realty Investments L.P. – favored the plan DTSC has now approved, which will remove less soil and “cap” it. The caps could consist of building foundations, pavement, or clean soil, according to a Zeneca consultant’s report.

Community activists pointed to the Zeneca consultant’s findings that their preferred solution would have the most permanent effects.

At a meeting of the Community Advisory Group (CAG) – which brings together various stakeholders with an interest in the fate of the Zeneca site – earlier in October, Eric Blum, the CAG’s co-chair, asked environmental scientist Steve Perry about the limitations of various remediation technologies. Perry had just explained how his employer, a Dutch consulting firm hired by Zeneca Inc. to clean up a block of the toxic site bearing two chemical evaporation ponds, has tried to contain the land’s contaminants.

“In your 30 years, have you seen this type of containment fail?” Eric asked.

“Let’s just say there’s no absolutes… think of the most elegant engineering, the most wonderful, amazing things that humans have ever built or done. There’s all kinds of factors off into the future that may impact that,” Perry said.

Tan grasses and scrubby coastal vegetation carpet the Zeneca land like any other stretch of Bay shoreline, but a unique history is buried in the ground. In the late 1800s, Stauffer Chemical Company started hauling fool’s gold from an Iron Mountain mine in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Redding to the site to burn it down to sulfuric acid, a key ingredient in dyes, detergents and fertilizers. Stauffer used the leftover cinders for landscape fill on site.

Corporate tenants of the plot stored years of Stauffer byproducts produced throughout the company’s lifespan, including through its acquisition by a series of other chemical industry giants like the consumer products companies Chesebrough-Ponds and Unilever. During those years of storage, byproducts Stauffer and others produced were released into the site’s soil and water.

Eventually the Zeneca site landed in the hands of Imperial Chemical Industries, once Britain’s largest manufacturer. In 1993, Imperial’s American branch changed its name to Zeneca Inc. In 1997, Zeneca stopped making products there, and Cherokee Simeon Venture I L.L.C. (CSVI)  – the limited liability company the drugmaker sold the site to in 2002 – essentially abandoned it following the 2008 financial crash, Zeneca’s outside counsel Bill Marsh said at the Richmond meeting. CSVI is a limited liability company of which Cherokee Simeon Holding Company is a member and Zeneca is a manager.

In 2006, the DTSC ordered Zeneca to remediate the site, noting its detection of 11 cancer-causing chemicals and other substances that can harm human reproduction and development. Those at risk include “people who work at or visit the Site, those who excavate into contaminated soil or groundwater, and/or persons who otherwise come into contact with, inhale or ingest contaminated air, soil or groundwater,” the order says.

The excavation plan and the capping plan DTSC eventually selected share some specifics. Both attempt to neutralize on-site dangerous compounds that easily transform into vapor, and require long-term monitoring of substances there as well as use restrictions written into the site’s deed. Under these restrictions, developers may never build detached, single-family homes there, and no schools serving people under 21 may be built on a specific section of the plot.  

But the excavation approach would scoop up and truck out roughly an additional 63,000 truck trips’ worth of earth and involves no capping. That approach had drawbacks: it would cost more than capping and would involve the disposal of the contaminated earth in a hazardous waste landfill in Kettleman City, in California’s Central Valley.

Shopoff Realty of Irvine, CA, whose business is the acquisition and resale of what its website calls “undervalued” land, said it plans to buy the Zeneca site and develop there. The so-called Richmond Bayfront Project would include townhouses, condos and flats – up to 150 homes per acre – as well as shops, a restaurant and a waterfront park. After DTSC’s plan is carried out, the environmental impacts of working or living at Bayfront would be similar to those from never-developed land, the firm said in a presentation to the City Council in September.

Shopoff said the development would come with an agreement to spend $46 million on community improvement. Nearly 40% of that sum would go to schools and draw matching funding from the state. Smaller portions would refurbish Richmond’s fire stations and Booker T. Anderson Community Center, and create a San Francisco Bay Trailhead. Bayfront would bring in $31 million in property taxes and $60 million in sales taxes yearly, Shopoff said. Affordable housing would make up a fifth of its homes.

At the CAG meeting on October 10, community members’ priorities came up against DTSC officials’ convictions that the approved capping plan is effective from a scientific standpoint. “There are instances across the country where you have development on waste that is left in place but is capped,” said Grant Cope, DTSC’s deputy director of site mitigation and restoration, adding that capping had worked under some homes in Emeryville.

If there is a land use restriction, experience suggests it’s acceptable to do a residential development in such areas, so long as you maintain certain protections, Cope said.

“We. Don’t. Want. That,” Richmond Panhandle resident Karen Franklin said at the CAG meeting. “I don’t know how we can say it more clearly: the community, the people of this city and the East Bay don’t…want these lawsuits. We don’t want Emeryville. We don’t want the Oakland Estuary. We don’t want Hunter’s Point. We don’t want Treasure Island,” she added, in a reference to other Bay Area industrial sites. “It’s all bad.”


  1. Jess on October 30, 2019 at 6:26 am

    Could you please add the location of the site?

    • Phyllis Mandel on November 1, 2019 at 11:43 am

      I also was looking for a location for the site. Most folks in Richmond do not know where the “Zeneca” site is?

      • Bob on November 2, 2019 at 10:01 pm

        Maybe a map. I too want to know where this is.

      • Walter Hill on November 15, 2019 at 2:00 pm

        It’s right off the SF Bay Trail – adjacent to Marina Bay’s “Bayside Ct” and directly behind Seaport Ave, in Richmond, CA.

  2. citizen on October 30, 2019 at 9:07 am

    DTSC does not select the cleanup plan, they approve or disapprove based on compliance with state law.

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