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Cleansing of Toxic Waste-Laden Region Not an Easy Task for UC
Cleanup of Richmond Site Proves Risky
BY JASON MALINSKY, The Daily Californian
Tuesday, July 30, 2002
The unnatural red color that pervades the soil of Stege Marsh, a wetland bordering the San Francisco Bay, serves as a toxic warning on what seems to be prime real estate in Richmond.
The red tinge developed when former land owners dumped burned iron pyrite, a metal recognizable to many as "fool's gold" used to make sulfuric acid for an industrial process, on the site.
Now UC Berkeley and the Zeneca corporation, which each own separate slices of the land, are in the process of detoxifying the site.
UC Berkeley uses its portion of the land for research, while Zeneca wants to sell its portion to developers. The marsh was classified as a toxic "hot spot" by the Regional Water Quality Control Board in 1998—a title reserved for the 10 most polluted regions in the Bay Area.
Amid public health concerns and potential environmental dangers, UC project engineers and Zeneca employees work to neutralize and bury industrial waste and other toxic metals on Zeneca's site, which adjoins UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station.
During the cleanup effort, between 250 and 300 UC Berkeley students and staff conduct research within sight of the waste each day.
The multimillion dollar remediation project to eliminate the threat of toxins on the site presents a formidable challenge to UC and Zeneca engineers. Though engineers can greatly reduce the risk of contamination, toxic metals cannot be destroyed, says James Hunt, a UC Berkeley professor of engineering.
Tractors on Zeneca's plot excavate pyrite cinders and pile them into large toxic hills. A worker moving a truck from the work site to the "clean zone," a location supposedly devoid of toxins, hoses down his vehicle at the border to remove any dirt that may contain dangerous metals.
During the "cleaning and greening of a site," workers move across Zeneca's land with hard hats and heavy machinery, mixing the toxic cinders with limestone to neutralize the pH balance of the mixture.
Workers bury the "bound" toxins and cover them with a "spray-on grout," which acts as a "temporary cap" until a "permanent cap," consisting of some sort of development either commercial or light industrial, is built on top of the sprayed covering.
Depending on the geographic distribution of the toxic material, controlling the risks of remediation is a balancing act. Some of the toxins found in Stege Marsh are "too soupy" and therefore "not amenable to the technique" used to contain the other pyrite cinders on site, says Karl Hans of UC Berkeley's Environmental Health and Safety Office. Engineers remove soupy toxins to one of the state's toxic landfills for safe disposal and monitoring.
"When you move the (toxins) to another location, the problem still exists," says Hans, who favors containing the toxins on site to avoid moving them through neighborhoods on their way to landfills.
Dwight Holing, a Zeneca spokesperson, says the company's cleanup practices comply with federal and state regulations for worker and environmental safety.
But Will Bruhns, the senior engineer at the Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Zeneca's cleanup methods are not "absolutely perfect."
"There are always these questions of whether to encase the toxins or to dig them out and haul it away," Bruhns says. "What are the risks of both? It's a balancing act. Somebody has to look at the balance and make a decision."
University officials admit capping the toxins is not very desirable, but say there are no other viable options.
"Leaving in place this massive amount of material doesn't seem like a great solution, but I can't think of a better one," says Jim Hunt, a UC Berkeley engineering professor who is familiar with the Zeneca cleanup.
Any development on land above the treated toxins would be classified as a Brownfield development— an abandoned or inactive industrial site potentially contaminated with pollutants.
A Brownfield classification does not usually deter developers from building on contaminated sites. Simeon, a San Francisco-based development company, plans to develop lands adjacent to the area where Zeneca buries the treated pyrite cinders. There may be as many as 450,000 Brownfield developments nationwide, according to federal government estimates. [Note: this is an inaccuracy; the figure used applies to the total number of U.S. brownfields, not developed brownfields. Go to http://www.pcusa.org/washington/issuenet/enviro-010531.htm and search for 450,000 = "More than 450,000 brownfield sites lie abandoned, largely because developers fear lawsuits as well as intense federal oversight of cleanup efforts." ]
The neutralization and burial of pyrite cinders on Zeneca's property is expected to be completed this week, Holing says.
Iron Mountain in Redding, Calif.—classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site—is the original source of the iron pyrite found in Richmond. According to an agency Web site the mine at Iron Mountain is "historically the largest point source of toxic metals in the country, and the source of the most acidic mine drainage in the world."
(c) 2003 The Daily Californian
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