Soiled Secrets

Weeds break through the cracked pavement, and a patch of wild fennel towers above the vacant graffiti-covered cinderblock and plaster building that sits a few yards from San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, a block north of Dwight Way. In the back corner of the lot stands another abandoned building, white and built of bricks. I can barely make out the black faded letters that identify it as an auto repair shop. A chain-link fence smothered with morning glories separates the back of the desolate property from the houses that line 10th street, one block west. This West Berkeley neighborhood is rapidly becoming more vibrant, and its property values are rising accordingly. When caution signs declaring the site a hazardous waste area were posted in June, I wondered what might lurk beneath the surface or hide in its buildings.

At the bottom of the signs is a phone number for the State Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC). Why did these warnings suddenly appear on a site that had sat vacant—and apparently unloved—for so long? For years, say neighbors, the only signs of life on the lot (other than weeds) were visible on Saturdays. Heidi Spanier, owner of a nearby vintage clothing store, says, “There would be kids playing there. They’d be in there and the gates would be closed.”

The records of the City of Berkeley’s Toxics Management Division (TMD) and the DTSC tell an unsettling tale. In 1939, Julius Chase purchased the site, which extended to 10th Street and then contained an auto-wrecking yard. Chase later sold the western side of the property for housing. Then he built an A&W restaurant, and when it closed, the graffiti-covered cinderblock building became Ali Baba’s restaurant, a tiny Persian burger joint. The small white brick building in back housed auto repair shops until the mid-1990s.

In December 27, 1985, a neighbor in the western residential area complained that waste oil poured on the ground by auto repair shop employees was running onto his property. A team from the Department of Health Services investigated. Next to the shop—Berkeley Auto Repair—they found a one-foot square hole approximately 4 feet deep, filled with black oily liquid. A pile of auto batteries sat nearby, and drums filled with waste oil and antifreeze were stored behind the restaurant.

Subsequent inspections by DTSC, the TMD, and environmental consultants retained by Chase revealed unsafe levels of lead, methylene chloride (used for cleaning auto parts), oil, and grease on many parts of the property. In 1990, DTSC oversaw yet another investigation and found that levels of these contaminants were still above EPA standards for industrial properties.

When Chase died in the early 1990s his heirs inherited liability for cleanup under a section of the Clean Water Act that states that whoever owns property can be held fully responsible for remediating contamination. That made Droubi Nahla liable when the heirs sold him the property in April of 1999. Nahla should have been made aware of the contamination—once property owners become aware that their land is contaminated, they are legally bound to disclose this information to prospective buyers. (The seller must disclose anything s/he knows, and the new owner is responsible for remediating any contamination that becomes apparent whether s/he knew about it or not. Clearly it is in the seller’s best interests not to know more than is absolutely required and in the buyer’s interest to know everything.)

Nahla retained Sequoia Environmental Consulting Services to evaluate the scope of the contamination and devise a plan for cleaning it. On August 16, 1999, TMD approved an assessment and cleanup work plan submitted by the firm. Prior to the plan’s approval, Geoff Fiedler from the TMD had inspected water samples from test drilling on the property and seen that some of the shallower groundwater had black oily bubbles floating in it. Fiedler expected to hear from Nahla or his representatives within three months, but years later the property still sat there, full of lead, oil, grease, and possibly methylene chloride.

Finally, in January 2005, the DTSC issued an Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Order and Remedial Action Order to compel Nahla to address the hazard. The order’s first requirement was that within 30 days Nahla would erect fences and signs according to DTSC specifications. Hence, the sudden appearance of Hazardous Materials warnings where children played on sunny Saturdays.

Failure to comply with the detailed specifications and timelines of the DTSC could cost Nahla up to $25,000 a day plus punitive damages of up to three times the amount of any costs incurred by DTSC. The DTSC’s Angela Blanchette explains that the first step is to again reassess the property. “Petroleum products break down over time, so the site might be less contaminated,” she says. “Methylene chloride can also break down, but lead doesn’t go away.” Fiedler, too, is worried about the lead. “Lead is particularly bad for children,” he says, and adds that in high concentrations, methylene chloride is a potent carcinogen. By year’s end, Nahla is expected to submit a cleanup plan. The scope of the remediation will depend on future use—cleanup standards are more stringent for residential properties than for commercial use. The DTSC says he will be required to excavate some lead-contaminated soil. After that, Nahla’s most affordable option might be to “seal” the rest of the contamination by paving it and using the land for parking.

The lead-contaminated soil must be moved to a hazardous waste landfill. Since there is only one such landfill in California, soil is often trucked out-of-state. Owners are liable for the expense of excavation and disposal—as well as for assessing contamination. New owners can sometimes offset the expense by suing previous owners or businesses that pollute.

If Nahla’s plan meets DTSC requirements, the agency will send fact sheets to a number of residences and businesses within two to three blocks of the contaminated site and to some public officials, opening the plan to a 30-day public review. After the plan is modified, DTSC anticipates that the cleanup excavation of the lead will take a day or two in February of 2006.

Why did 20 years go by before any action was taken to clean up the site once it was known to be toxic? And why were children allowed to play on property where lead had been detected?

Neither the city nor DTSC could answer these questions. Nor could they say how many similar situations exist in Berkeley. Fiedler is concerned that there are many more severely contaminated vacant or underdeveloped lots, and notes, “Lead is all over West Berkeley.” He explains that the problem is particularly severe there because industrial and commercial activity has always been concentrated west of San Pablo. Large factories once spewed out toxic waste. The area is still dotted with auto repair shops that used to keep underground gasoline tanks to top off their customers’ cars, and Fiedler says the shops cleaned greasy floors and auto parts by hosing them off with leaded gasoline.

The scope of the hazardous contamination in West Berkeley may not become evident until more property is sold for redevelopment. Many prospective buyers will want environmental assessments because they know they may become liable for cleanup. If state or federal funds are used to develop property, environmental assessments are mandatory.

Decades ago, when regulations on underground tanks were much less stringent, small gas stations and repair shops were scattered everywhere, even in residential areas.

“In Berkeley,” Fiedler says, “we recommend that people use raised beds, that they do not garden in the soil.” The neglected lot on San Pablo Avenue may be small, but it exemplifies a far larger problem: the legacy of toxins used so carelessly in the past.


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