Campus Bay Toxic Legacy Coming to Light
By Rebecca Rosen Lum, Contra Costa Times
Shortly after she and her husband moved to Richmond, Stephanie Wilson
strapped their 8-month-old daughter, Lily, to her bicycle for a jaunt
through the neighboring property -- a vast expanse of open space that
encompasses a 17-acre marsh.
"It's such a beautiful spot," she said. "We stopped to watch the tractor."
Within weeks, she learned that the 85-acre Campus Bay property -- site
of the longtime Stauffer Chemical Company, later Zeneca -- had been
designated one of the state's most polluted. The tractor had been
moving contaminated soil.
"We were oblivious until my husband attended the hearing at the UC
Field Station," she said.
At that Nov. 6 hearing, called by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock,
D-Berkeley, Trent Wilson heard the land characterized as a bubbling
cauldron -- sodden with heavy metals, arsenic, DDT, PCBs and volatile
organic compounds. He also heard about dubious cleanup methods
launched without permits or public notice.
He learned, to his disbelief, that owners Simeon Cherokee Ventures --
Simeon Properties and Cherokee pension investments -- plan a
1,336-unit housing development there.
Zeneca closed up shop in 1997. Simeon bought the land reportedly for
$50 million, although neither company will confirm the figure.
The land is pocked with toxic hot spots from chemical production and
dumping dating back to the late 1800s.
In 2002, the city gave its blessing to Simeon Properties for a
sprawling research complex on the 28-acre former Western Research
Center site -- no detailed environmental review required.
Since then, the bottom fell out of the bio-tech market, and Simeon
turned to housing on the remaining 57 acres -- using the same permits
for commercial development first approved by the City Council.
Communities for a Better Environment attorney Adrienne Bloch
protested, noting that the property was considered so hazardous that
federal health compensation is available to anyone who lived in the
area as a child.
But city officials say the project can be done without compromising
"The city's highest priority is the health, safety and public welfare
of the people in our community," said Steve Duran, director of the
Richmond Redevelopment Agency.
Simeon Properties CEO Russ Pitto said his company stepped into an
existing plan for marsh remediation and a turf war between the water
board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
"We inherited some history," he said.
What the city will gain is a mixed-use complex where there was once a
blighted wasteland, and $7 million in annual redevelopment money.
"This will be one of the highest quality communities in the Bay Area,"
he said. "We've won awards for our communities."
When previous owner ICI Americas tore down 47 buildings in 1999 --
chemical labs, pesticide manufacturing plants, storage tanks and
cement staging slabs -- the resulting rubble consumed 3 acres. The
dust rose into the air and covered neighboring businesses. The city
permit was the size of an index card.
"There was no reference to chemical hazards, nothing," said Sherry
Padgett, 52, who works at the nearby Kray Cabling Inc. and has
spearheaded opposition to what she describes as a shoddy, dangerous
cleanup operation. "It was all airborne and all downwind. We know
nothing about it other than it was bad, bad, bad."
In June 2003, Padgett, a slim, youthful-looking blonde, developed
chondrosarcoma, an extremely rare cancer of the cartilage. Several
months later, a malignant tumor appeared in her thyroid gland, also
quite rare. Two others formed soon thereafter, she said.
Her doctors told her it was "probable" that exposure to carcinogens
"I come from a genetic background where we live to a very old age
without health problems," she said. "I have never known illness."
In fact, several people who work in downwind businesses have developed
life-threatening illness, including multiple cancers.
Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa County's director of public health,
cautioned against making a correlation between the cleanup and the
cancers, saying prolonged exposure to carcinogens must take place to
be linked to an illness.
Still, the incidence is sobering. Bay Area Residents for Responsible
Development conducted a door-to-door survey that revealed that on
South 49th Street alone from April 2001 to March 2004, individuals
were diagnosed with cancers of the bladder, prostate, thyroid and
uterus, and with birth defects, chondroma, fatal pancreatitis, kidney
problems, ovarian cysts and severe headaches.
During that time period, contaminated soil was excavated and propelled
into the air, coating cars, streets and buildings with dust.
Neighbors say they have had to maintain relentless pressure to get the
most basic safety questions answered. They've lobbied elected
officials and state agencies to more closely monitor the cleanup.
The group hammered at the California Environmental Protection Agency
to transfer authority from the state's Regional Water Quality Control
Board, which employs no toxicologists and does not involve the public
in its process, to the much more stringent Department of Toxic
With the help of Hancock, they prevailed.
They expected toxics investigators to carefully gauge the state of the
land and the risks before scheduling new cleanup efforts. But work
restarted with no substantive changes.
"The concerns the residents have are understandable and I share them,"
Brunner said. "That kind of exposure shouldn't ever happen again."
Redevelopment agency official Duran said, "The most important thing we
have now is clarity at the state regulatory level so that the city and
other stakeholders can have confidence in the process and the
decisions for which these state regulatory agencies are responsible."
With the remediation methods Simeon is using, toxic gases, some
volatile, would be emitted for decades underneath the housing. A draft
proposal shows fans installed in the basements to keep gases from
"I'm not necessarily opposed to building homes on this site, but don't
want it done until it's been thoroughly and carefully evaluated, using
the top expertise from Cal EPA," Brunner said.
Brunner consulted on the Kaiser Shipyards cleanup before their
transformation into the Marina Bay neighborhood. But Campus Bay is
more complex, he said. The soil contains PCBs, heavy metals and
pesticide manufacturing byproducts, including volatile organic
Plans call for 325,000 cubic yards of heavily contaminated soil to be
placed into a massive hole, then sealed with a cement cap. The weight
of the cap will likely push the toxic sludge down into the ground and
the nearby marsh, further corrupting the waters of the Bay, said UC
Berkeley professor of environmental science Claudia Carr.
In addition, the deep pilings necessary to support the high-rise
apartment would break through the seal, she said.
Meanwhile, children arrive at 3 p.m. every weekday for an after-school
program at the UC Field Station next door. The Aquatic Outreach
Institute has school classes wading in the Stege Marsh to remove
The Wilsons are moving to San Francisco. Like many area business
owners, they are considering moving their company, too.
"I don't understand how, on one of the most toxic sites in California,
a project like this got going," Trent Wilson said. "Had I known about
this, I wouldn't even have driven my car through that area. It makes
me wonder, what else are they hiding?"
Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum 510-262-2713 or rrosenlum@c....