UPdaTE H&S Column, Spring 2005
UC's Richmond Field Station a toxic soup

http://www.upte.org/updateMay05.pdf (Abridged)

Full Column:
Circling the Wagons in Richmond
Joan Lichterman, UPTE Systemwide Health & Safety Director

UC has perfected a tactic known as “circling the wagons,” which originally referred to the protective circle western pioneers formed around their wagon trains to fend off attackers. Today, circling the wagons means gathering one's team to agree on an approach to fend off possible attacks. This is the University's first approach when anyone challenges its authority or control, whatever the issue.

UC is using this tactic at the Richmond Field Station (RFS), where many employees are frightened about health hazards there and at a neighboring site. Until now, they have been afraid to come forward to express their concerns and request information. Unknown numbers of UC employees have developed cancers (some of them rare, and indicative of radiation exposure), arsenic poisoning, reproductive problems, and other ailments, some of them fatal. The same can be said of people who live in the area or who work downwind. (The total number is unknown; community groups and union members are pressing state health agencies to conduct a health survey to help assess the effect of exposure to environmental toxins.)

To put present concerns about these sites in context, in 1950 UC bought the Richmond Field Station site from a weapons manufacturer (the California Cap Company). From what I understand, it is contaminated with arsenic, lead, mercury, PCBs, and pyrite. (The pyrite came from Stauffer Chemical Co. next door, which used it to manufacture sulfuric acid. When it was spent, the pyrite residues were used as fill in marshland later owned by UC and in the southern part of the Stauffer site.) Both RFS and the approximately 85-acre site next-door also may be contaminated with processed radioactive materials, but this is based on verbal recollection rather than written records. In 1979 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began to assess the neighboring property as a Superfund site—needing priority cleanup—and conducted a site inspection in 1994. It is unclear how or when the site moved from the U.S. EPA to Cal/EPA for oversight, but some people consider it to be one of the 10 most contaminated sites in California.

At the neighboring site, which shares a property line of at least 2,000 feet in length, Stauffer Chemical had produced toxic chemicals from 1897 to 1960, and then produced pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides from 1960 to 1998. The company was bought in 1987, changed hands a number of times, and manufacturing continued until 1998. The last owner, Astra-Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, sold 27 acres of the northern portion to a property developer, Cherokee-Simeon Ventures—the same developer with which UC has contracted to build a research park and housing for visiting researchers at the Richmond Field Station.

In 1998, after Astra-Zeneca set aside $100 million to clean up the site, the company accepted an alternate proposal to clean it for $20 million. In 1999 the City of Richmond allowed the demolition of the entire 85-acre chemical processing facility, including all chemical storage facilities, laboratories, and buildings. The work was done between 1999 and 2001, without notifying RFS staff or residents and companies in the surrounding areas, and without any oversight or inspections or perimeter air monitoring.

In May through December 2002, Zeneca started “Big Dig 2002” as a self-monitored cleanup under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board—again with no public notice. Neighbors and UC staff report that nearly 1,000 truckloads of contaminated earth were hauled away, blackening the air for weeks at a time. As part of this “cleanup,” some highly toxic concrete facilities were piled and then ground into gravel for paving and other use throughout the property.

In addition, 350,000 cubic yards of highly toxic and volatile substances were both buried and piled onto the site in a 30 acre, 8-foot-high mountain capped by a paper-like concrete cover to allow water run-off. Cherokee-Simeon Ventures plans to build high-density housing on top of this mound, with fans running 24/7 to release toxic gases into the air so they won't move up into the housing. (This mound is close to the RFS perimeter.)

During the cleanup, approximately 30 test wells were placed throughout the property for ongoing shallow and deep-level testing. Quarterly test results for 2003 and 2004 showed extremely high measures of volatile organic chemicals at both levels.

Back to the Wagons
When UPTE and RFS staff requested a meeting with UCB's Labor Relations, Labor Relations checked with Environmental Health & Safety to find out what was happening at the site. EH&S produced an air monitoring report (based on one measuring device) to show there isn't a problem—as if one air monitor could tell the story of what's on and under the UC site.

At the same time, we contacted officials at the Cal/EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which is responsible for monitoring and regulating remediation of part of the Zeneca/Cherokee-Simeon site next door, and two Department of Health Services branches—Environmental Health Investigations and Occupational Health—to let them know that UC staff were also suffering from toxic exposures and to request that the state conduct a health survey. On April 22, the first of two scheduled meetings was held with officials from these agencies, as well as the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (a Cal/EPA agency that shares oversight of the Zeneca site with DTSC), two UCB EH&S officials, the founder of Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development, an UPTE member, a student who works part-time at RFS, and the Contra Costa County director of public health. [On May 12, after this column was written, Cal/EPA Secretary Alan C. Lloyd released his decision to make DTSC the lead regulatory oversight agency.]

From informal notes I've seen, EH&S mentioned their air monitoring and some testing for mercury or lead, but didn't elaborate about what they have monitored, for how long, what they have found, in what quantities, or what they have done to protect workers and neighbors. They did admit that the PCBs in the marshland (along the Bay Trail) are difficult to control and appear to be expanding.

After that meeting, RFS plant managers announced a “construction status” meeting with staff [held on May 4, as the newsletter went to press]—as if many staff would attend what sounded like a boring meeting, and as if a normal facilities meeting would address their concerns. A state toxicologist was to attend the meeting.

Further Action
Oversight of the Zeneca site is the subject of a City of Richmond resolution, a California Assembly bill by Loni Hancock (AB 1360), and a Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors resolution to give complete authority to the Department of Toxic Substances Control—which, unlike the regional water board, has the expertise and experience to oversee complex hazardous sites, evaluate remediation plans, and assess health hazards, as well as the authority to issue and enforce orders to protect public health.

Thus far, DTSC has little knowledge about RFS hazards, and until Secretary Lloyd's decision it lacked the authority to expand its data search to the contaminated lagoons and marsh on the Zeneca or the 125-acre UC sites, or on the contaminated uplands on the UC site. Cal/EPA had the authority to cede oversight to DTSC, but hadn't done so until May 12—hence Assemblymember Hancock's introduction of AB 1360.

Even though DTSC will now oversee both sites, AB 1360 is still relevant for defining public health priority sites and designating oversight for future projects. Please contact your legislators to support AB 1360, promote its passage, and urge the Governor to sign it. Volatile and persistent organic compounds don't recognize borders. Even after attempted remediation, both sites are still contaminated. The owners (including UC) are moving ahead with plans to develop the sites, despite the very real possibility that remediation efforts will not protect the workers building on the sites, the future tenants, or people who work or live in the community, including the Richmond Field Station.

Stay tuned. (More information and links will be posted on UPTE's web site.) And put pressure on UC Inc. to thoroughly monitor the air, water, and ground on the site; to publicly release the results; to pay for testing employees and researchers for possible environmentally related health conditions; and to stop its planned development until the Field Station and its neighboring site can be remediated, if that is possible.