Activist takes her cause personally

By John Geluardi, CONTRA COSTA TIMES, Posted on Sun, Aug. 28, 2005

Two years ago, Sherry Padgett was a very private person. She had never spoken in public, knew very little about public process and even less about inorganic toxins.

A Danville resident and mother of two, Padgett had spent her career working as a financial officer. Nothing in her background would have predicted she would be become an unrelenting advocate for the responsible cleanup of a contaminated 85-acre property along south Richmond's waterfront that was chockfull of what the EPA categorizes as some of the worst carcinogens.

Her work over the past two years has resulted in changes of city, county and state policy toward the cleanup of the Zeneca site, which had been on track for residential development. In addition, her discovery of government mismanagement of the site has been partially responsible for three state Assembly bills, according to state Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

On Wednesday it will be announced that she has received the prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service for her dedication and effectiveness at the local level. The awards are issued by the American Institute of Public Service, which was co-founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1972.

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock said Padgett had made some remarkable political achievements.

"Sherry Padgett is in the tradition of the great citizen activist," she said. "She became aware of a serious problem, made herself an expert on the subject and motivated the community to action. And ultimately she was effective in moving government to alter its policies."

So what happened to turn Padgett into an activist?

She had been working for seven years as a chief financial officer at Kray Cabling, which is located in a light industrial neighborhood east of Richmond Marina Bay when she was diagnosed with chondroma/chondrosarcoma, an extremely rare form of cancer. She underwent surgery to remove three ribs and part of her sternum. When she returned to work she began to look for environmental reasons for her illness.

"It turned out I didn't have to look much further than across the street," she said. "I started talking to some of the business neighbors and I began to hear about other people who had become ill."

What was across the street was the former Zeneca Corp. chemical manufacturing plant. The property had been used for nearly 100 years to manufacture a litany of what Padgett calls "badass chemicals" such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. The property was so polluted that the State Water Resources Control Board in 1998 named it one of the top 10 polluted sites in the Bay Area.

After some further research, Padgett learned that the government oversight of the property had been very "flimsy." She discovered that when Zeneca demolished the existing facilities and removed several feet of contaminated soil from the property, the city of Richmond granted them a permit without any environmental oversight.

The result was plumes of contaminated dust blowing over businesses and residential neighborhoods to the north and east of the Zeneca site.

Furthermore Padgett learned that Marin-based developer Cherokee-Simeon was planning to build an 18-story building that would contain 1,330 units of housing. To counter the carcinogenic fumes that rise from the soil below the buildings, the developer proposed to install fans at ground level, which would run 24 hours a day and would whisk away any airborne danger, she said.

It was then that Padgett became motivated. She said she became intractably involved in the issue and March 2004 Richmond Planning Commission meeting.

"I had never spoken in public before but I went to the meeting and by the end of the night I had made a personal commitment to myself and the community that I would stick to finding resolution for this site that would be satisfactory to the community," she said. "If we hadn't got involved, Cherokee would be out there right now laying foundations and paving roads for a development on a contaminated site where 3,000 to 5,000 people would live."

With the help of Assemblywoman Hancock and the Contra Costa Department of Public Health, Padgett was successful in getting the development put on hold until the Department of Toxic Substance Control determines the property is clean.

"That was a big success," she said. "The DTSC has more stringent guidelines for toxic clean up," she said.

Padgett, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in June 2004, said she was glad when she heard about the Jefferson Award, but she doesn't think she alone deserves it. She is quick to point out all of the support she has received from the community. She also said she couldn't have done any of it without Jess Kray, her boss, and Peter Weiner, an environmental attorney who donated his time to the cause.

She added that she will continue her work to clean up the site. "If I can make a little bit of change that might help protect future generations in this area, there is no greater return than that," she said. Contact John Geluardi at 510-262-3787 or