The Brownfields Dilemma

In 1997, 60 teenagers from Fruitvale and San Antonio, two east Oakland neighborhoods, came together to envision something many other kids take for granted: a park.
They met near an old complex of industrial buildings weathered by the bay tides along Oakland’s waterfront. Behind them were boats docked at the Union Point Basin Marina. Adjacent was a barren, nine-acre lot scattered with grass, rubble, and trash — the site of the park they had come to plan. The teenagers and other community members, brought together by an Oakland non-profit community group, the Spanish-Speaking Unity Council, came up with a list of features — picnic tables, a basketball court, monkey bars — they most wanted in a park.
It’s no mystery why the kids would be dreaming of a park. Thirty-two percent of Fruitvale residents are under 18. The elementary school here has over a thousand students — the biggest in Oakland. This part of Oakland is also the city’s most crowded: San Antonio has over 20,000 residents per square mile, with Fruitvale a distant second at 13,000 (the city average is 8,000). Because of the density and industrial zoning, open space is hard to come by. San Antonio and Fruitvale have the least open space of any Oakland neighborhoods — 0.78 and 0.68 acres per 1,000 residents, respectively, compared to the city-wide average of 1.33 acres.
“We have literally no open space,” said Marsha Murrington, Senior Executive Officer of the Spanish Speaking Unity Council. “We looked towards the estuary, where there might be some open land.”
But that estuary site was one of Oakland’s estimated 600  to 1,000 brownfields, defined by the EPA as places where  “redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived contamination.” In the case of Union Point, which is owned by the Port of Oakland, the contamination is most definitely real. Besides PCBs and other toxic chemicals, arsenic and lead have been found in the soil at concentrations many times higher than levels considered safe by regulators.
“It’s great that people want to create more open space,” says Bradley Angel of the San Francisco environmental justice group, Greenaction. “The question is: Should it be a park? What is the level of contamination? And what’s the extent of the site remediation that’s going to take place? That’s the million-dollar question.”
It was five years ago that the teenagers met at Union Point to plan their park. Today the nine-acre lot still stands barren. The teenagers are now of voting age, but wrangling between the Port of Oakland and the City over responsibility for the park — who will maintain it, who should accept liability should something go wrong there — has stalled the project. And concerns about the toxicity of the site still loom.
The Port, which has drawn income from Union Point for decades by leasing it to industrial tenants, is contributing only to the evaluation of the site, not its cleanup. So community groups like the Unity Council face a choice: either take the risk that toxic substances will resurface or continue to live in a neighborhood with virtually no usable open space.
“What would it be better to do?” asks the Unity Council’s Rita  Torres Gonzalez. “To just leave it and not do anything? We’re working so hard to do something that will be good, but on the other hand, at what expense?”
According to some critics, these difficult decisions fall on groups like the Unity Council because polluters often escape the real consequences of their toxic legacy.
No law requires the owner of a brownfield to clean up contamination before selling or leasing the land, and regulators often approve cleanup plans that fail to make the site safe for those who use it. “That’s why there are so many arguments about cleanup standards,” Angel said. “[Everyone says] ‘it’s too expensive!’ But if government fined polluters properly for violations, if [companies] actually had to pay the true costs, not only would we have fewer contaminated sites in the future, but we’d have more money to pay to clean up sites.”
The Port has owned Union Point since the 1930s. Since the site is on tidal land, California law prevents it from being sold; it may only be leased for commercial uses. Over the years, the Port leased it out to a series of industrial tenants — a diesel engine manufacturing plant, a lumber company, a scrap-metal yard. That range of industries makes it hard to trace the contamination back to a single source. Arsenic may have come from wood preservatives, lead from diesel fuel. And as Port spokesman Steve Hanson points out, the site may have been built on landfill already contaminated with lead and arsenic.
In the 1970s, the Port built a commercial marina on the waterfront, hoping the boats and boaters would generate commercial interest in the Union Point site. But in recent decades, says Hanson, the Port has had a hard time finding tenants, in part because of Union Point’s location. “The difficulty with that site is it didn’t have a freeway exposure,” says Hanson. “That’s why the site didn’t get immediately snatched up, even if we had cleaned it.”
In 1997, the Unity Council — renowned for its development work on behalf of Fruitvale residents — approached the Port with a development plan for Union Point: the Port would lease the land free of charge to the City of Oakland, which would work with the Unity Council to turn it into a park based on community members’ designs. In effect, the non-profit and the City were offering to take unprofitable land off the Port’s hands, clean it,  and create an attractive backdrop for the marina, while the proceeds from that marina continued to go to the Port. The payoff for the neighborhood would be a much-needed park.
The Port agreed to consider the proposal, and the Unity Council began designing its park. Council staff solicited feedback from Oakland residents with surveys in Spanish, Vietnamese, and English, collecting over 400 responses.
In 1998, the Port hired environmental engineers to conduct soil and groundwater tests, then brought them back again in 2000 and 2002 for additional soil testing. “We found some contamination,” says Hanson, “a little more than we expected.” The results were outlined in a remediation plan submitted to regional water quality regulators. Lead was found at concentrations up to 11,000 parts per million (ppm) — almost 28 times the California Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit of approximately 400 ppm for soil in children’s play areas.
Toxic levels of lead, especially in children, can cause cancer, nervous system and reproductive damage, and mental impairment. A 2001 study by the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati found a direct, inverse relationship between IQ and lead levels in children. “Lead in soil is the principal threat to kids’ health,” says Ahimsa Sumchai, a doctor who has consulted on other brownfield remediation projects. “Contrary to what is frequently portrayed in the media, it’s not lead in paint, it’s lead in soil that poses the greatest threat. Even lead in small concentrations bio-accumulates, so a child who is living in that area who plays in that soil is going to be exposed to lead that accumulates in his or her skeletal system, her teeth, red blood cells.”
But lead wasn’t the only problem at Union Point. Arsenic, which is linked to many kinds of cancer, was also detected at alarmingly high levels. The California EPA adjusts its recommendations for arsenic on a case-by-case basis, but a limit of 18 ppm was recently set for a residential site in Watsonville (residential cleanup standards are often more stringent than recreational ones). At Union Point, where cleanup goals were set at 20 ppm, arsenic concentrations reached 1,200 ppm.
According to the 1998 evaluation, groundwater at the Union Point site did not appear to be contaminated. But Patrick Lynch, an environmental engineer who works on brownfield remediation projects and has studied the Union Point plan, points out that groundwater tests were taken at a distance from the spots where soil contamination was highest. “They didn’t take a groundwater sample next to that [arsenic] hotspot. The sample is well removed, so it’s  really hard to make the assessment that the groundwater is not contaminated. And another of those samples is immediately adjacent to the shoreline, where you have water flowing in from the tides, so you’d expect [low contaminant levels].”
PCBs, along with other toxins, were also found on the site, though evaluators deemed those chemicals to be in low enough concentrations not to pose a threat.
The results from the soil test quickly dashed plans for a native plant nursery and a beach, but the Unity Council pressed on with its development plans, mapping a nine-acre park with picnic and barbecue areas, a youth center, and grassy fields. But first, they’d have to clean the place up.
The remediation plan outlines six alternatives for dealing with the contaminated soil. The most expensive — carting off all the contaminated soil to an off-site hazardous waste facility — would have cost $3 million. The cheapest — sculpting the soil into a hilly “nature sanctuary” and capping it with clean dirt — is estimated at about half a million dollars. Faced with the range of choices, the Port, Unity Council, and City of Oakland opted for a combination of the three cheapest alternatives. Plans may change if additional contamination is found during construction, says Hanson, but barring that, workers will “cap” the contamination with dirt and possibly, in some places, asphalt.
But simply capping the contaminated soil with clean soil raises concerns, since the state of a pollutant can change over time. Even once it’s buried, lead can travel and disperse, says Lynch, especially at a site like the proposed nature sanctuary where lead-poisoned soil is being covered with dirt and plants. “There are definitely changes that can occur. Usually lead will become soluble in an anaerobic environment, so if there’s a lot of decaying vegetation and stuff, like a compost pile, it would tend to be more mobile under those conditions.”
At a waterfront site like Union Point, water quality is at risk, too. “Certainly when we have high tide and high levels of rainfall, the ground becomes saturated,” Lynch said, “and you end up with puddles of water, which could very well be contaminated from the material, no matter how deep it’s been buried.”
And what about the effects of heavy rains or seismic shifts that could expose the contaminated soil? Hanson acknowledged that “wind-wave action could erode away the covering,” an issue which, he says, points to the need to secure a firm maintenance plan for the Park.
Maintenance at Union Point Park will almost certainly fall to the City Parks Department, says Robert Thombs, the City’s Project Manager for Union Point Park. But according to Thombs, as well as officials from the Port and regulators who reviewed the proposal, the job of testing soil and groundwater at the site will end once the park is built. The contamination, says Thombs, “would be noted at the time the park is constructed. Wherever the contamination is stored, we would not be allowed to put a swimming pool or something there.” But, he adds, “whatever’s there is there. I don’t think we’re going to need to retest.”
Capping isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s the only one available to the non-profit Unity Council, which will have to raise additional funds to cover even the most basic remediation plan. “Obviously, the ideal situation would be to cart [all the contaminated soil] away,” said Torres-Gonzalez. “but that’s also at an extremely expensive cost.” Soil as contaminated as that found at Union Point can only be disposed of at a Class 1 Hazardous Waste disposal facility, at great expense. No one’s ruling out the possibility of removing the toxic soil, but who would pay for that? “We’re still looking for additional sources of funding,” says the Unity Council’s Murrington. “It’s a difficult situation. There aren’t a lot of grants available for cleanup.”
In theory, it’s up to regulators to make sure that a clean-up plan is adequate for a site’s contamination. But regulators have often approved plans that later proved inadequate, and make no designation about who should pay the costs of cleanup. Betty Gramm of the State Water Quality Control Board says that her agency took cues from the Unity Council, Port and City of Oakland in approving the Union Point plan. “I think there was a real feeling among all parties that funds were not available for a remedial action plan that included a lot of off-site disposal,” recalls Gramm. “They made a choice to manage the contaminants on site. And I have no idea what their funding options are.” Regulators, the very people whose job it is to ensure that brownfields are properly cleaned, took their cues from the site’s owners and developers.
At least so far, caps on brownfields have worked in several locations in the Bay Area. Across the Bay from Union Point, Heron’s Head Park [see Terrain Fall 2000] sits on a former brownfield once littered with thousands of pounds of illegally dumped garbage. In 1998, the community received grants from the Coastal Conservancy and the Port of San Francisco to haul away the garbage, and built a cap over the remaining pollutants. “There are all kinds of caps, semi-permeable, clay ones, geosynthetic,” says Jenn Sramek, of Literacy for Environmental Justice, one of the groups that worked at Heron’s Head. “We have one at Heron’s Head Park that’s a clay cap, because it allows for the slow penetration of water, but it allows wood to decompose without releasing ammonia, which would damage the plants.” Today, Heron’s Head Park contains a restored wetland and nature area for children.
Other caps are less successful. At South Prescott Park in West Oakland, says Greenaction’s Angel, a remediation plan designed by Caltrans and the State Department of Toxic Substances Control was so inadequate that officials issued a statement limiting the number of hours kids could spend in the park. Eventually, a compromise was reached requiring Caltrans to cover the site with three feet of “new” soil, much like the plan for the Union Point Park site. But when the new soil arrived, a community coalition demanded testing and found that it, too, had lead levels well above state recommendations. Eventually, clean soil was brought in and the park opened to the neighborhood.
And problems can continue to crop up, even after a remediation plan is completed. Late last year, park workers at Harrison Park in Berkeley found carcinogenic chromium 6–tainted water seeping up through the cracks of a four-month-old skate park. Project engineers had known about the contamination and capped the site with an elaborate gravel, plastic, and concrete cap, but even that wasn’t enough to withstand the winter rains. The park was shut down and remains closed, pending an investigation.
One of the direst examples of inadequate cleanup took place just a few miles away from Union Point Park, in East Oakland. In 1978, the City built Verdese Carter Park on the site of an old battery factory that had operated for fifty years. Workers destroyed the old factory and removed 5,700 cubic yards of soil. But that wasn’t enough. In 1993, residents discovered a strange yellowish substance in the cracks of their basketball court — a mix of arsenic and zinc. A month later, the park was closed and workers began removing 17,000 cubic yards of arsenic and lead–tainted rock and soil. Three years and $3.7 million later, Verdese Carter Park reopened.
Torres-Gonzalez and others at the Unity Council fear that waiting any longer could mean the loss of several key grants, which expire in the next two years. It’s one reason they may not demand a more stringent cleanup from the Port. “Perhaps we need to take a closer look and make further demands,” says Torres-Gonzalez. “But coming back to the table and saying ‘we demand now that you totally clean it up’ [would] further jeopardize the funds that we have that are going to expire soon if we don’t start construction.”
Out on the nine-acre lot, the only life forms visible now are a few weeds, a robust rosemary bush and a few deciduous trees awaiting new growth in spring. They may be emblems of hope for Union Point Park advocates. “We have the mission and dedication to build this park,” said Torres-Gonzalez. “We don’t want to lose hope.”

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