Posted on Sun, Jan. 23, 2005
Site Veterans Doubt Its Safety
By Rebecca Rosen Lum
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Buell "Bill" Naromore remembers the first day he drove his brand-new 1952 Ford sedan to work at Stauffer Chemical in Richmond. It coincided with one of the city's worst industrial accidents.
Inside a Stauffer processing plant, Naromore's co-worker opened a clogged drain full of a volatile chemical used to make pesticides. It blew when it hit the air. Naromore's co-worker spent weeks in the hospital nursing severe burns. Others passed out. Naromore's job was to send sickened residents to the emergency room at Stauffer's expense. It would not be the last such day in Naromore's three decades with Stauffer.
He later hosed off his 1952 Ford sedan, but it was no use. The chrome had rusted. Airborne chemical pitted the shiny paint as if it had rained nails. "You can imagine what it does to a person's lungs," he said.
Naromore and other former workers scoff at the notion that the marsh where the now-defunct chemical plant once sat could ever become a nice place to visit, much less to live. The marsh mud, declared clean by one state agency, was recently tested by another and showed alarming levels of toxins remain.
Nonetheless, a team of developers and investors intend to build 1,300 housing units on part of this pollution-ravaged 80 acres, much to the consternation of neighbors who say they still live with the legacy of one of the worst cases of environmental abuse in local history.
As the battle heats up over the land's future, environmentalists, developers and area business owners debate whether this seared ground can ever recover. It's a question that looms over numerous communities that are home to Superfund sites, six of which are former Stauffer Chemical plants.
"The major problem has been solved (in Richmond). I don't think people have really reflected on that. They did a good job in my opinion," said environmental engineer Jim Levine, whose firm designed a $20 million cleanup on the property for Zeneca, a company that bought Stauffer years ago and in turn sold the site to developer Simeon Cherokee.
Naromore, who started at Stauffer in 1947, chuckled when he heard that. He saw plenty of harrowing accidents during his career there. At 83, he's still sharp enough to recall the devastation to the land, marsh, Bay and fellow workers.
By the time the chemical works shut down in 1997 after a century of operations, the site was so polluted it was classified as one of the nation's worst. Naromore recalled a day in the late 1970s when a company engineer asked him to help with a "special project." The drain blocked, a coolant used to make the soil fumigant Vapam filled a cement-lined shed about two-thirds full.
"I says to the engineer, 'Bernadette, are you sure it's safe to pump it down the sewer? I question that,'" Naromore recalled. "She said, 'Oh, sure. It's fine.' That stuff smelled to high heaven. I had to keep running out to get air."
Despite daily exposure to overpowering fumes, the company did not issue gas masks to workers. Worker protection laws were still years in the future. "It used to take me forever to eat my lunch," Naromore said. "I lost my lunch many times. I never had allergies until then. Now I have them all the time."
To make sulfuric acid, workers burned pyrite ore in smelters exhausted through 270-foot-tall stacks that spread the smoke through the Seaport Village neighborhood, home to many families and a school.
In time, discarded pyrite cinders extended some 6 feet into the ground, Naromore and others said. Acids spilled into the ground while being loaded onto train cars and trucks, and into the nearby Bay.
When the herbicide Ordram accidentally flooded the marsh, company officials summoned everyone on duty to bury the coated driftwood. Gas that erupted from a high-pressure line one day was so toxic it killed pine trees a mile away. "I knew a lot of people who died suddenly, mysteriously," Naromore said. "One was a guy who used to load acid, caustics. I saw him on Friday. Monday he was dead. He was about my age, in his 50s."
"I've said many times I don't know what they would ever do with that land," Naromore said. "You don't correct it by dumping dirt on it. I'm no chemist, but I've sure worked with a lot of chemicals." Bill's son Shannon, now 55, started at Stauffer in 1967, thinking he'd pick up a little extra money to buy a car. He stayed for 28 years -- no sick days, no late days, no time off with injuries. An Elvis look-alike -- "That's fine with me, because I'm The King's No. 1 fan" -- Shannon Naromore inherited his father's hardy constitution. He's survived many co-workers.
"We were breathing stuff that was so bad, I'd wake up in the middle of the night with headaches," he said.
Pyrite cinder dust dyed all the neighboring buildings red, and "you wouldn't believe the stink," he said. "My eyes would just burn so bad, I'd be trying to drive home, tears would be running down. You'd be crying from the time you got home to the time you went to bed." The old Richmond plant was shut down and replaced in the early 1970s. The company installed three ponds to filter chemical waste. Environmental awareness was increasing, and with it public pressure to apply it to the nation's industries.
The workers who produced titanium tetrachloride, a catalyst for making plastic, called the division "TICL 3." It housed a reactor that heated to 900 degrees. The product had one buyer: Eastman Kodak.
Late one night during the early 1970s, the TICL 3 building was razed during a graveyard shift.
"We went in with hoses and stuff," Shannon Naromore said. "A guy turned on the hose, there was a chemical reaction and it blew up. He got burned all over. He came in the morning with blisters all over his body."
Times changed. Earth Day became a public relations opportunity, and workers at Stauffer trucked out to the marshes in a forklift and plucked abandoned tires out of the Bay.
"After 100 years of polluting the environment it was the least we could do," Naromore said.
In 1996, the workers boarded buses for a day of trust-building exercises at Yosemite National Park, including a ropes course. The next year, the plant shut down.
Shannon Naromore roared with laughter when told about Simeon Cherokee's plan to build subterranean vaults beneath apartment buildings in its proposed development, outfitted with large fans that would prevent concentrations of volatile gasses from building up.
"You got a Three-Mile Island out there," he said. "Fans! What if a fan breaks down? You can never clean that place up."
Reach Rebecca Rosen Lum at 510-262-2713 or firstname.lastname@example.org.