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Groundwater cleanup of contaminated Zeneca site to begin next month

on September 26, 2023

Zeneca Inc. will begin a series of “groundwater injections” next month at the controversial Campus Bay project site in South Richmond, setting off a nine-month process to break down hazardous compounds underlying the 86-acre patch of coastal land. 

According to Zeneca planning documents, contractors will pump thousands of gallons of city water, reactive iron, microbes and microbe food into about 400 wells that dot the 86-acre site, which lies due west of Richmond’s Panhandle Annex neighborhood.

The idea, California Department of Toxic Substances Control officials say, is that the microbes will consume a host of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, left over from a century of heavy industrial use of the site — compounds like benzene, chlorobenzene, chloroform, dichloromethane, carbon tetrachloride and vinyl chloride which can in some cases cause cancer.

“The actual cleaning-up process will mostly take place underground and will happen slowly over several months to years as the microbes and iron do their job,” said DTSC spokesperson Devin Hutchings in an emailed statement . 

Water cuts through a green marsh with yellow wild flowers in the foreground and a line of houses backed by mountains in the far ground.
The Zeneca site sits at the southern tip of Richmond, flanked by the Stege Marsh to the south and the Marina Bay community to the west. (Thomas Sawano)

Injections will begin on Oct. 9 and take place Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hutchings said the work will cause minimal disturbance to the offices and research facilities that directly neighbor the Zeneca site. Zeneca will conduct its injections within areas already fenced-off by DTSC. 

Hutchings added that the injections are “just one facet” of the Zeneca site cleanup, with DTSC pursuing various other strategies to remove pollutants from the groundwater and soil.

Richmond District 5 councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, who has been following the Zeneca site developments for much of the past two decades, is skeptical of the move. McLaughlin pointed out that in 2008, DTSC published an independent report finding that pilot injection tests were not fully effective in neutralizing VOCs in the groundwater. 

“We don’t know what kind of compounds the toxins break down into,” McLaughlin said. “What are the impact of those breakdowns of the compounds on health and the environment?” 

Longtime shoreline activist Sherry Padgett shares in McLaughlin’s skepticism. Padgett lives in the Marina Bay community, which lies due southwest of the Zeneca site, and runs her fiber optic cabling company from an office abutting the site’s eastern boundary. 

“This can’t be mistaken for a magic bullet,” Padgett said. “It is not necessarily the solution to mitigate the complex mix of VOCs out here.”

Two bicyclists ride along a path by the bay in Richmond, in the area of the contaminated Zeneca site.
Bicylclists pedal past the Stege Marsh (Thomas. Sawano)

Kristina Hill, the head of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Urban and Regional Development, says that even if the injections succeed in neutralizing the VOCs in the Zeneca site’s groundwater, they won’t be able to quickly break down heavy metals. Arsenic, for example — present in high concentrations in the site’s soil — can be broken down by microbes, but the process is likely slower than with VOCs, posing a health risk if rising sea levels push up the water table.

“When groundwater rises, especially salty groundwater, it’s going to mobilize some of those heavy metals like arsenic,” Hill said. “I fail to see how the contaminated soil issue has been addressed sufficiently to justify putting people permanently on that site.”

The injections come after years of debate over the future of the site. Previously owned by herbicide manufacturer Stauffer Chemicals Inc. and then Zeneca — which later merged with Swedish pharmaceutical firm Astra, forming the global AstraZeneca — the property was sold in July 2021 to developer HRP Campus Bay Property LLC. Picking up on longstanding development visions, HRP plans to build stores, parks and as many as 4,000 units of condominium housing on the site.

Previous city councils have also weighed how comprehensive a cleanup DTSC should require. Original plans called for a partial cleanup — meaning that Zeneca would only be required to remove contaminants at the surface of the site, and encase the remainder below a thick layer of concrete. Critics of this plan say that in the future, the concrete could crack — causing contaminants to leach up through the soil. 

Now, McLaughlin said, things are changing, and that she and her council colleagues are on board with a comprehensive cleanup of the site. This means that all traces of contaminants must be removed.

“We now do have that unified voice of the council again,” McLaughlin said.

The city is currently being sued by a coalition of activist organizations that allege that council’s approval of HRP’s development in December 2020 ignored evidence regarding the cleanup needed to make the site safe for residential construction. 

On Sept. 19, City Council voted to settle a small portion of the suit regarding public hearing rules for large projects.

(This story was updated to correct Gayle McLaughlin’s district and to clarify Kristina Hill’s point about heavy metals.)

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


  1. Shawn Dunning on September 26, 2023 at 11:23 am

    FYI, McLaughlin is the D5 rep—not D4

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