Ravaged Roost

The forgotten residents of Richmond’s south shoreline have put up with industrial contamination for a century. Now new high-rise apartments might rest on a cap intended to seal off toxins while the cleanup could threaten people and wildlife, including the endangered California clapper rail.

Ethel Dotson sits in her Richmond home, surrounded by aerial photographs, laminated news clippings, and piles of documentation dating back to the ’40s. Her gold bracelets clink together as she gestures to unearthly bright spots on an oversized black and white photo from 1962. “You can see how those chemicals glow,” she declares.

She displays a photograph of herself as a young child, scowling, outside the housing project where she grew up. Beside her stands her brother, grimacing. “My brother couldn’t stand to go outside. There were always bad smells in the air. And I can remember seeing the stuff from my backyard, big hills of it. Black, pink, yellow, white, all this stuff. All chemicals.” During the ’40s and ’50s, Dotson’s family lived in the Seaport War Apartments, next door to the Stauffer Chemical manufacturing facility, on Richmond’s south shoreline. A third image shows neighborhood members gathered outside a community center. Dotson notes that many in the photograph died of serious illnesses such as cancer.

The 85-acre parcel between I-580 and the San Francisco Bay Trail has messy nomenclature too. Once Stauffer Chemical, it is now the Cherokee-Simeon Venture property, but it’s commonly known as the Zeneca site, after its most recent industrial owner. Operations began at the site as early as 1897, when Stauffer started manufacturing sulfuric acid and a variety of industrial and agricultural chemicals, leaving a landfill of pyrite cinders that contaminated next-door Stege Marsh, one of only a few wetlands around the bay that supports the endangered California clapper rail. In 2001, a report released by the Department of Energy under the Energy Employees Occupational Illnesses Compensation Act listed the old Stauffer plant as a radioactive materials processing site. The act requires compensation for workers who contracted illnesses, but no such funding is offered to neighbors, such as Dotson’s family, across the fence.

When Stauffer packed its bags in 1982, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca carried on the site’s toxic legacy, making herbicides, fungicides, and other pesticides there. By the time the last of the Zeneca facilities had been demolished in 1998, a new toxic soup—of PCBs, heavy metals, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds—was left behind. At least 160 potentially hazardous chemicals are known to be present, substances that would later lead the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board to characterize the Stege Marsh portion of the site as a “toxic hot spot.”

Cleanup of the site became a priority, and Zeneca pledged to pay $100 million towards the costs of hauling away the contaminated soil. But in September 2001, the Water Board approved the less costly measure of covering the site with a giant—over 60-acre—flattened cap meant to contain the contaminants on-site. The property next to Zeneca, a UC Berkeley-owned research lab called the Richmond Field Station, once held a blasting cap manufacturer. Hazardous waste from those operations also now lies beneath the cap, for an estimated 350,000 cubic yards of contaminated muck. “That cap has a lot—I mean a lot—of cracks in it,” says nearby resident and UC Berkeley professor of environmental science Claudia Carr. Yet if plans before the city are approved, the site will become a place quite a few people call home. The newest owners, joint developers Cherokee-Simeon Venture, envision the cap as a foundation for a high-rise with 1,330 shoreline residential units in buildings ranging from 40 to 200 feet high. Giant fans at ground level would churn away hazardous fumes migrating upwards from the cap. These plans were made only after the original scheme to build a biotechnology research facility was quashed in the face of economic downturn. The question as to whether it will ultimately be approved for residential use is still on hold. “This is one of the worst projects that I have ever seen proposed in this area,” says Henry Clark of the 21-year-old grassroots West County Toxics Coalition.

“No Human Health Hazard Detected”

Bureaucratic approval is not the only thing up in the air—lately, dust plumes from the site have been plaguing nearby businesses and residents, and anxious workers and homeowners are fighting back.

The morning of December 1 is so chilly that you can see the breath of picketers as they shout, “No toxic housing!” outside an entrance to the Zeneca property. It is six-thirty AM, still half an hour before trucks will rumble in to continue work on bayside East Stege Marsh, the wetland portion of the site, whose contaminated soil is being excavated until February 1, the date clapper rails begin nesting. The protesters, organized by Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD), seem an unlikely bunch to be blocking the gates of an industrial work zone—doctors, business owners, a lawyer, a professor, other professionals, and neighbors like Dotson. The demonstration, which includes a staged donning of gas masks and gloves, was held after months of letters, e-mails, phone calls, and even a public hearing proved futile: according to members of BARRD, state agencies have gone ahead with dangerous cleanup procedures on the marsh without sufficient public protection.

Homemade signs invoke the names of the state agencies and developer whom demonstrators hold responsible: the Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state EPA agency that currently has oversight of the Stege marsh cleanup; the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the agency working on the upland portion of the property; and Russ Pitto, president of Simeon Properties.

The controversial plan to cap the contamination, at a cost of $20 million, rather than remove it, was formulated by consulting firm Levine-Fricke. Former head James D. Levine, who once worked for the Water Board, had sold his share of the company by the time work commenced—he is now a hopeful casino developer at Richmond’s Point Molate. According to Kent Kitchingman, brownfield specialist at the federal EPA, caps are a common method of dealing with contamination: “The cap is meant to prevent human exposure via inhalation or dermal contact,” he says, and goes on to explain that a typical brownfield cap consists of multiple layers including clean fill, clay, and high-density polyethylene to form a barrier to water. The exact composition of the permanent cap at Zeneca is yet to be determined, but as a temporary solution the contamination is topped with a cement mixture. Says Kitchingman: “The remedial action objectives at Zeneca were to clean up to an industrial standard, not a residential standard. Is it safe to put residents on top? That’s a good question.”

Now that the contamination has been contained to some degree, the project focus has shifted to dredging the contaminated matter from Stege Marsh and replacing it with fill. When marsh excavations began, the muck was stored in an opened section of the upland capped portion of the site. In November and December, 11,400 cubic yards of excavated marsh material were deposited on-site, drawing fire from critics. More recently the removed muck was treated with highly corrosive lime, then hauled away to a Pittsburg landfill. While Department of Toxic Substance Control officials assert that there is no threat of exposure during the process, residents say that strong winds coming off the bay whisk particles into surrounding communities. The heavy metals tend to bond with silt and clay, so the greatest threat is airborne dust particles.

BARRD member Sherry Padgett, who witnessed the cleanup from its beginning in 1998 from her fence-line office at Kray Cabling, says that of the 300 full-time employees in neighboring businesses, 24 were diagnosed with cancer and conditions associated with toxins in the last few years of remediation—including herself. In 2002, the major cleanup operations took place. “Blowing dust was so prevalent and dark we could not see the sun for hours on many days,” she says. “Vegetation was covered with so much dust that some died, unable to breathe. Large populations of rabbits, skunks, squirrels, mice, birds, and feral cats disappeared. Zeneca provided no public warning or comprehensive view of the cleanup’s extraordinarily lethal human health hazards.”

Both the Water Board and the Department of Toxic Substance Control maintain that current procedures do not pose a human health threat. “There has been air monitoring every step of the way, and the monitoring has detected no human health threat,” says Curtis Scott of the Water Board.

The air monitoring system, managed by both Cherokee-Simeon and the Department of Toxic Substance Control, has been a major source of criticism from concerned neighbors and workers. In a project status update by the toxic control agency in late December, a number of air monitoring equipment malfunctions were reported. For instance, one monitor measured volatile organic compounds to be at levels more than 27 times higher than the mandated safety limit on December 28, but officials believe this reading to be inaccurate due to weather conditions. Yet on each of the five days reviewed in the report, there was a problem with the air monitoring instruments, leaving residents and area workers uncertain what kind of threat they were facing.

On December 23, toxic control staff completed sampling of the stockpiled marsh material and found high concentrations of soluble arsenic, lead, copper, and mercury. The test results led to a reclassification of the material as hazardous waste. Beginning this February, material will be hauled away to a Class I hazardous waste landfill at Altamont. Concentrations of PCBs and pesticides were also present in the samples but below hazardous levels.

The report notes that the hazardous waste levels were developed based on less stringent standards for aquatic environmental health, not human health. “As long as no dust leaves the site, there are no exposures by these chemicals to the community,” the report reads. Yet Padgett and other others living and working in close proximity have repeatedly contacted the agency about the dust nuisance. Reports of the road being too dusty for drivers to see the yellow line, or of trucks on the road dripping trails of mud that later dried into dust, are frequent in e-mail exchanges throughout November and December.

Meanwhile, Richmond is in financial straits, struggling with an estimated $35 million deficit. No one debates that development on a would-be wasteland would be attractive to the strapped city. And just to sweeten the pot, according to city records, a few city councilmembers received campaign donations from Cherokee-Simeon. “The pressure to remediate these sites comes from the fact that the site is ripe for economic development,” said Jane Williams of California Communities Against Toxics during a November public hearing called by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock. “The local regulatory agencies don’t care about human health and the environment, only the tax base. From the developers’ perspective, the main issue is profit generation.”

Barry Cromartie, director of planning for the City of Richmond, played right into that perception: “Any delay is a delay in income,” he said at the hearing, to boos and hisses from the crowd. “Our rallying cry is that we don’t want to delay the kind of development we need. That would hinder the financial growth and financial sustainability of our city.”

Ecological Restoration or Economic Manipulation?

The documented history of this sliver of land goes back much farther than the Seaport/Stauffer days. According to the team of scientists who compiled the 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals report, the area used to be part of the extensive tidal flats that edged much of the bay, with marshes and higher areas reached by high tides. Stege Marsh is an important habitat for the California clapper rail, a secretive, chicken-sized bird whose total population is confined to only a handful of bay marshes. According to wildlife conservationists, residential development at Zeneca is a lose-lose proposition: while environmental contaminants may be perilous to future apartment dwellers, the residents themselves could have a devastating impact on wildlife in nearby wetlands.

“You can’t look at the restoration in isolation of what goes on around it. If you have lots of urban night-lighting, pets accessing the marsh, and a lot more people, there are going to be significant impacts on the rails,” says Art Feinstein of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Night lighting, he explains, can affect rails’ breeding cycles and make them more susceptible to predation. Rails are preyed upon by dogs, feral cats, and rats, he says, all of which are more likely to be present in a residential scenario. The bird needs low marsh, where it nests and hides from predators, as well as high marsh, where it retreats during high tide, in order to survive. The rails’ habitat is already compromised by recent “improvements”: traditional high marsh areas, where it would feed and retreat from high tide, are now covered by the steep-walled concrete cap, and the site has been fragmented by a high-banked access road built through it for remediation activities in 2002.

Yet a pledge to restore the rails’ habitat is supposedly a focus of the developer. When the site cleanup was initiated, Cherokee-Simeon sent out glossy pamphlets to the community outlining a program that would “provide improved habitat for the endangered California Clapper Rail as well as other native plants and animals.” While Cherokee-Simeon appears to speak the lingo of Bay Area environmentalists, foes of shoreline development have yet to be convinced.

In a letter addressed to the head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, environmental attorney Peter Weiner and UC Berkeley professor Claudia Carr charge that “CSV remediation, restoration and development-related activities take no account of the presence of California clapper rail within East Stege Marsh.”

According to Levine-Fricke’s recommendation for remediation, clapper rails are present in all of the adjacent and surrounding marshlands except East Stege Marsh, the portion owned by Cherokee-Simeon. Yet Carr’s letter to Fish and Wildlife points out that documentation of rails in East Stege Marsh is available despite the fact that “no investigation or notation of clapper rail in the East Stege Marsh has been noted in CSV documents.”

Then there is the question of how high levels of contamination will affect the birds. Jules Evens of Avocet Research Associates says that the presence of several pair of rails still in the marsh is “encouraging” in view of the contamination, but “we have no idea how it will affect their reproduction.” Cleanup should be completed by February so as not to interfere with the clapper rail mating season.

Carr characterizes the entire project as “a classic example of development disguised as restoration.” Carr lives at Marina Bay, just next to the marsh. A sign on the shoreline SF Bay Trail alongside Stege Marsh states marsh restoration is being carried out to save one of California’s endangered shore birds. Carr points out what the sign neglects to mention: that dense urban development comes with the package. “One of the major problems is that state agencies are relying on data from private consulting firms,” she says. “US Fish and Wildlife needs to play a greater role in assessing the site.”

Yet Fish and Wildlife hasn’t been much help: agency spokesman Jim Nickles says that according to the Endangered Species Act, a listed bird is to be protected from injury and its habitat cannot be damaged. “Fish and Wildlife reviewed the cleanup in the wetlands area at Stege Marsh, but we haven’t conducted any review of the uplands area, because it does not appear that the upland development will have a direct impact on the clapper rail habitat,” he says.

At the turn of the 20th century, clapper rails were so abundant that San Francisco restaurants hung strings of them in their windows. Today, the bird is regarded as an indicator of environmental quality, and there is little certainty that it will survive the next couple of decades. Its habitat at Stege Marsh has been forever altered by toxins—the same ones spewed into the air when Seaport residents lived right next to Stauffer in the ’50s, re-released into the community during the remediation from the late ’90s until the present.

Ethel Dotson wears a ring shaped like a golden bird, a West African glyph known as a San Kofa. Dotson says the San Kofa signifies that in order to know where you are going, you have to understand your history. Dotson ticks off the problems with the site: pollution, ecological destruction, health threats. Today, developers say dwellers living atop the mound of hazardous chemicals will be safe as long as they don’t try to grow their own vegetables.

Leaning over stacks of photocopied government documents and old newspaper clippings—including one from the 1950s with the blunt heading, “Richmond Has Problems,” Dotson recalls the Seaport days. “Things haven’t changed much,” she says. “We’ve always had the brunt of the mess.”

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