Richmond chimes in on cleanup of toxic site

By Rebecca Rosen Lum


The Richmond City Council has added its voice to those asking the state for tighter control of a toxic cleanup at the former Stauffer Chemical site and the neighboring UC Field Station.

The council agreed Tuesday night to ask a state agency to shift jurisdiction of the Superfund site to the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The state Regional Water Quality Control Board is the current oversight agency.

Councilwoman Gayle McLaughlin's retooled resolution also asks that the toxics agency continue to consult with the water board.

In a decidedly uncharacteristic move, 33 speakers waived comment in the face of the council's unanimous support.

An enthusiastic Mayor Irma Anderson called it a "win-win resolution."

McLaughlin, in her first effort to shepherd legislation through the council, said the action "allows for a united expression of our common aspirations," including "rigorous science" and tight controls of toxic cleanups.

As originally presented, the measure asked the toxics agency to stop work while a safe plan is developed. As passed Tuesday, the council asks for a "comprehensive review in terms of site characterization and cleanup, with emphasis on community health." It also states the importance of returning the properties to the tax rolls as soon as safely possible.

Developer Cherokee Simeon is preparing the waterfront property off Interstate 580 in south Richmond, formerly home of Stauffer Chemical, for development as a business park and housing.

For more than 100 years, workers concocted pesticides from deadly chemicals at the site. Spills were common, and tests later revealed heavy metals, PCBs, and volatile compounds in the soil and marsh mud.

When McLaughlin introduced the resolution Feb. 15, interim City Attorney Everett Jenkins said he had not had time to assess whether requesting the state to take specific actions could mean increased liability for the city.

McLaughlin's resolution dovetails with legislation by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, to forbid developers from "agency shopping" for the most lenient regulatory body to oversee a toxic cleanup.

Critics say that is what Cherokee Simeon did in having the project overseen by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board. Company officials deny the charge.

Unlike the toxics agency, the water board employs no toxicologists, and its oversight includes no regular public hearings, although its representatives have met with the community, said water board spokesman Terry Seaward.

Mark Freiberg, director of the UC Berkeley office of environmental health and safety, said the university has "properly, aggressively and safely" remediated its portion of the expanse with the help of the water board.

At Hancock's urging, the state's environmental protection agency in October transferred partial authority of the project to the toxics agency, but only for the "uplands" portion of the Cherokee-owned land.

Councilman Nat Bates, the most vociferous voice against the resolution when McLaughlin introduced it Feb. 15, was absent for the vote.

Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or