Posted on Wed, Mar. 09, 2005

City asked to review, then raze

By Rebecca Rosen Lum


When Zeneca Corp. leveled 40 buildings on what would become the Campus Bay site, clouds of dust billowed into the air, settling on roads, buildings and autos downwind.

That unnerved those who worked neighboring businesses because for decades, toxic chemicals, including the caustic and potentially explosive titanium tetrachloride, had been manufactured, mixed and stored in those structures.

Sherry Padgett, chief financial officer at nearby Kray Cabling, has wondered whether breathing that dust led to the rare cancers that have ravaged her.

The city permit to raze the structures and haul away the debris is a 5-by-8-inch card with little explanation and no reference to the plant's history or status as a Superfund site. Clearing the site was a four-year job that ended in 2002.

Padgett joined about 30 other residents two weeks ago to plead with the Richmond City Council to require a thorough environmental review before they demolish structures in which toxics were once made or stored.

Council members balked at adopting the ordinance, co-sponsored by Gayle McLaughlin and Tom Butt, fearing lack of authority and increased liability. Councilman Jim Rogers said the language was so broad as to include homeowners who may inadvertently be storing caustic substances.

A committee including McLaughlin and Butt, chief building inspector Fred Clement, the city engineer, fire marshal and environmental planners are retooling the draft. They found no precedent, Clement said.

"There were some specific issues with the ordinance language that had to be better defined," said City Manager Bill Lindsay. "So a can of paint in a garage wouldn't trigger (an environmental) review, for instance."

"This is a very simple ordinance -- an important ordinance," McLaughlin said. "I think we have an obligation to the citizens whose safety we protect."

The issue "is neither complex nor abstruse," Butt said.

"The city issues only a few demolition and grading permits annually, maybe half a dozen each," he said. "Of those, even fewer, if any, might qualify for (an environmental report) review. Apparently, it would not involve a lot of work, but if it would stop one bad project, it would be worth it."

In considering such an ordinance, Richmond appears to be ahead of the curve.

State law governing demolition of structures addresses only lead and asbestos content and removal, said Angela Blanchette, spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

A year-old law requires the California Integrated Waste Management Board to help cities develop demolition procedures -- but only with reduction, reuse and recycling of building materials. Several cities and a few counties, including Contra Costa, have sought that help.

The gap is particularly glaring in Richmond, where a dense concentration of heavy industries once cranked out pesticides, resins, sheet metal, transformers and chemical compounds.

Two blocks from the residential Parchester Village stands a blue corrugated steel structure that once housed a chemical plant -- one of four on the site slated for demolition in the coming weeks.

Many other Richmond industrial names connect with toxic concerns.

Airco Industrial Gases, Bio-Rad Laboratories, Chevron Chemical, Great Western Chemical Corp., Henkel Process Chemical, Koppers Chemical, Marwais Steel, Myers Container Corp., Pacific Rim Packaging steel drum manufacture, Paktank Corp. bulk chemical, Unitank Terminal Service bulk chemical storage, United Heckathorn, Wilco (also known as U.S. Peroxygen) have done or continue to do business here.

State and federal environmental agency reports identify all of them as among the area's worst polluters.

The State Department of Fish and Game has linked toxic pollution in the Bay to declining fish and wildlife populations.

"I don't know how many properties this will affect, per se, but Richmond does have a substantial history of industrial manufacturing, which has left behind potential hazardous substances," McLaughlin said.

"Many of these old industrial sites were located in low-income areas of the city. Therefore, this becomes an environmental justice concern as well."

Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or