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Fearing new council would quash plan, Mayor Butt rushed to pass Zeneca decision, citizens’ group says

on May 28, 2021

This is the last story in a four-part series. 

In December, new claims that Mayor Tom Butt used his office to influence a development decision on another controversial Richmond property were filed in court, marking the third time in four years that the mayor’s actions sparked a legal fight. 

This time, the property was the former Zeneca Inc. industrial site on Richmond’s south shoreline. The multitude of chemicals left in the soil and water at the 90-acre site as a result of decades of manufacturing means the site rivals Point Molate as a lightning rod for conflict between environmental groups and supporters of development. 

 The site had hosted a chemical plant for a century. For more than 60 years, it was home to Stauffer Chemical Co. and later was purchased by the British pharmaceutical company Zeneca, which is now AstraZeneca, maker of one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Zeneca shut down its Richmond plant in 1997. A few years later, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control took over the site, which contained a long list of contaminants, including high levels of arsenic.

Richmond City Council had been eying the tract for residential development, but that would require more cleanup. In a 2016 letter to DTSC, attorneys for Zeneca said it had spent $20 million on remediation and pledged another $30 million, but the company expressed reservations about the city’s plan to put houses there.

arsenic monitors near Zeneca site
The Zeneca site, with posts marking wells that monitor arsenic levels. (File photo)

In 2018, DTSC offered several options for how to proceed, including a costly full remediation and a less costly capping of the site, effectively tamping down the contaminated soil after removing the top layer. The council that year backed full remediation. Its position changed in 2019, however, when the potential for any development on the site in the near future hinged on a less-aggressive plan.

“This city is not financially as sovereign as some of you may think,” council member Nathaniel Bates said when voting in favor of the change. “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.”

The plan passed 5-2 in September 2019, with Butt joining the majority. Immediately, it met with opposition.

“Until it’s cleaned up, don’t put people on it, or we’re going to have our own Love Canal situation here down in Richmond,” Eric Bloom, chair of a citizen advisory committee to DTSC, said at that 2019 meeting.

With the state allowing a cleanup plan that would pave the way for housing, the council last fall considered a proposal to build a large-scale project on the Zeneca site. Hilco Redevelopment Partners and the Southern California-based developer Shopoff Realty Investments proposed a mixed-use project featuring 4,000 housing units and 50,000 square feet of retail space. 

When three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance won council seats in November, Butt feared the plan would unravel. 

“I don’t want to start all over again next year when the Richmond Progressive Alliance has a majority,” Butt said in November. “If it doesn’t get done before they take office, I can tell you, they’ll do everything they can to stop it.”

The plan did meet with strong opposition, with many citizens speaking against it and many others urging the council to delay the decision a few weeks until newly elected members were seated.

The council, led by Butt, scheduled a vote on a development agreement with Shopoff for early December. That meant that a new City Council that was unlikely to support the deal wouldn’t get to vote on the agreement because it would not be sworn in until January. 

“I think that the mayor really wanted to get this done while he still had a council majority. … I think he pushed this through as fast as he could,” said Stuart Flashman, an attorney who represents the five environmental groups that filed the latest lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that Butt used his position as mayor to cut off council members’ attempts to ask questions about the development agreement and the environmental impacts of the proposed project.

Butt disputes that claim. “I did not cut anyone off, unless they exceeded their time limit,” he said in a recent email.

Attorneys for the city have not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.

With a lawsuit challenging the Point Molate project on appeal and the possibility that the owners of the PowerPlant Park cannabis growing site will reopen their case against the city, Richmomnd may be looking at a period of prolonged litigation. 

Whether Butt instigated any of that litigation will be up to the courts to decide. 

 (Read Part One: Lawsuits claim Richmond mayor steered development decisions in violation of ethics laws; Part Two: Recusals didn’t keep Mayor Butt from meddling in zoning, lawsuit claim; Part Three: Groups claim Mayor Butt excluded public from Point Molate development decision.)

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