Posted on Tue, Nov. 08, 2005

Claims of radioactive dumping in Richmond

The state Department of Toxic Substance Control is taking seriously claims by a former groundskeeper that barrels containing radioactive material were dumped at a waterfront landfill in Richmond 40 years ago.

Rick Alcaraz told department officials in June that when he was employed as a groundskeeper at UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station in the late 1960s he was sometimes sent to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories to collect 55-gallon metal drums and bury them in a marshy area near the field station.

In a radio interview with KPFA this past June, Alcaraz said he once opened a barrel and discovered some ore-like material. He handled the material until a co-worker warned him that it was "live." That night he said his feet and gums swelled and he experienced bleeding from his nose, eyes and ears.

The laboratory's chief of public information, Ron Kolb, said there are no records of such dumping. "We have investigated fully as far as our records could take us and we have absolutely no record that the Berkeley Laboratory has ever dumped anything over there," he said. "We frankly don't know what he's talking about."

The former dump site is now owned by the Richmond Community and Economic Development Agency. It's located between the field station and Promontory Point, a gated community within the Marina Bay development. It is also near the Zeneca Site, which is heavily contaminated from 100 years of chemical and pesticide manufacturing, which ended in 1997.

The department is managing the toxic redemption of the Zeneca site and the field station. "It is our policy to follow up on any and all information about possible activity at the site," said department spokesperson Angela Blanchette.

Since Alcaraz reported the dumping in August, Blanchette said, the department has consulted numerous agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The UC Berkeley Environmental Health and Safety Department conducted a radiation survey in September and found no indication of radioactivity on the surface. But in October they tested the area with a magnetometer and determined there is metal five to eight feet below the surface, according to Lynne Nakashima, the project scientist for the department.

Nakashima said there is no way to be sure the metal readings are coming from the barrels Alcaraz reported.

"A magnetometer will tell you some material is buried there but it doesn't tell you what it is," she said. "It could be almost anything, but we want to error on the side of caution."

Nakashima said the site will be very carefully excavated by Engineering/Redemption Resources Group. She said that for safety reasons, the excavation will be carried out in stages and at each stage, the soils will be tested for radiological materials as well as other contaminants. The air will also be monitored for hazardous materials that might become airborne during the excavation.

The cost of the excavation, which is expected to be completed by the end of November, has not yet been determined, Nakashima said. But the site investigation will be complicated by the marshy terrain.

"It is surrounded by water on three sides and the excavation area is subject to tides and rain," she said.

Contact John Geluardi at 510-262-2787 or at