Posted on Thu, Oct. 06, 2005

Risk to students' health at Richmond site debated

Underprivileged middle-school students who take an after-school course on the site of a former chemical manufacturing plant in Richmond are not exposed to any significant health risks, according to a state toxicological study that will be released this month.

Local environmentalist Sherry Padgett is challenging those findings, claiming testing for the Department of Toxic Substance Control study was too narrow to determine whether the property is safe for teenage students.

The Making Waves Education Program holds classes five days a week in Building 240, an old administration building on the former Stauffer Chemical site in south Richmond.

About 260 students, aged 12 to 15, are bused onto the property where they study for two-and-a-half hours on weekday afternoons except Thursdays and four hours on Saturdays, according to Making Waves board member Ronald Nahas.

Making Waves, which leases the space in Building 240, is a nonprofit group that offers tutoring and education support to children from underprivileged backgrounds. It is scheduled to move into a new facility by next fall.

The toxic substance control department conducted tests in August in Building 240 and the immediate area outside. The preliminary results show there is no immediate risk to students from volatile organic compounds or toxic vapors that rise from decomposing contaminants in groundwater and soil, according to Barbara Cook, the department's branch chief, who is overseeing the toxic remediation of the site.

The Stauffer Chemical site, also known as the Zeneca site, is an 80-acre, waterside property where toxic chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides were manufactured for more than 100 years. A 30-acre section of the site, considered to contain the majority of contaminants, has been capped with a quarter-inch layer of concrete.

The development company Simeon Cherokee owns the property. Because of the high level of contamination, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board filed a deed restriction on the property in 2004 that prevents its use as a day care, school or hospital.

The Water Board waived the deed restriction for the Making Waves Education Program, which had been holding after-school classes on the site since September 2002. The toxic substance control department took over as the lead regulatory agency earlier this year.

Cook said Building 240 was primarily used for office space. "We found very, very low levels of benzene, which was not unexpected," she said. "But there was nothing that was unacceptable."

She added that Making Waves does not have outdoor recesses and for the most part the students are restricted to the buildings.

Nahas said he is confident the building is safe. "Our view is the children are safe," he said "However, we encourage ongoing monitoring and data collection because the most important thing for these kids is that they're safe."

Padgett, who earlier this year won an award for her environmental activism in changing city, county and state policy toward the cleanup of the Zeneca site, is challenging the scope of the DTSC study. She said the edge of the 30-acre concrete cap is just 60 feet from the back of Building 240.

"This is one of the most complex toxic sites in California and we just don't know enough to say it's safe for children to be studying there on a daily basis," she said. "The DTSC has taken the first step of checking for (volatile organic compounds) around the perimeter of the building, but we need to do a lot more testing to have a full picture of what the children are being exposed to."

Making Waves Educational Program has been operating for 17 years and draws students from 19 primary schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District.