|Campus Bay Hits Bump
September 6, 2004
The proposed residential component of Campus Bay (see http://www.campusbay.info) may have been snagged in a debate about the technical aspects of the environmental cleanup. The controversy involves differing perceptions of several public agencies, including the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), which exerted original authority over the cleanup process, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the Contra Costa County Health Services Department.
Beyond the toxics issue, neighboring residential communities have questioned the ability of existing infrastructure to service the site, especially transportation, and the visual aspects of proposed high rise towers. Commercial and industrial neighbors, sensing a threat to their businesses, have joined the fray.
The project is strongly supported by the City of Richmond Community and Economic Development (CED) components who hungrily eye the anticipated tax increment revenue from the site, which is located in a redevelopment area.
Following are a couple of recent stories in the media:
Toxics Agency Calls Halt to Campus Bay Cleanup: By RICHARD BRENNEMAN
State environmental officials threw a major stumbling path on the road to a controversial massive high-rise residential complex near the Richmond shoreline this week, halting a crucial excavation and raising the specter that work might not recommence till spring.
Cherokee-Simeon, the partnership of a Marin County developer and a Colorado-based firm specializing in development on restored brownfields (i.e., cleaned-up toxic waste sites), have only September and October to excavated contaminated soils from shoreline marshland.
November marks the start of the nesting season for the Clapper Rail, an endangered shorebird regularly observed along the Richmond waterfront. After that, the dig could only take placed when the nestlings have taken wing in the spring.
Barbara J. Cook, the Berkeley-based chief of Northern California coastal cleanup for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, triggered the halt Monday with a four-page letter to the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Assembymember Loni Hancock followed up the next day with a letter of her own, asking the board to halt the project until Cook’s questions were resolved.
IRG Environmental is handling the cleanup, following a plan produced by LFR Levine-Fricke, an Emeryville-based toxic cleanup specialty firm once headed by would-be Point Molate casino developer James D. Levine of Berkeley.
The original cleanup plan was formulated when Simeon Properties targeted the site for an industrial park, and Cook said it failed to take into account the more recent plans for housing—which requires a higher set of standards because of round-the-clock occupancy and the presence of children.
Cook also cited the plan’s failure to spell out what would happen to the water in the marsh mud excavated during the cleanup.
While the cleanup plans called for processing the mud on site and burying it under the soil cap already encasing burned pyrite cinders on the site, Cook questioned whether that could be done without a hazardous waste permit from her agency’s Hazardous Waste Management Branch.
Cook also wanted greater public access to air-monitoring results from sensors on the site, particularly for residents without computers and therefore unable to access the web site created for that purpose.
The toxics expert also wants more information about the developer’s plan for control of contaminated dust during the cleaning, tighter standards for exposure levels permissible to site workers and the surrounding community and an explanation for the company’s selection of contaminants to be monitored in the air.
Residents have protested the presence of a view-blocking high-rise on the waterfront and environmental activists have expressed concerns that the project and its tenants might drive out the endangered and threatened species that frequent the area.
High-rises planned on Richmond toxic site
Building 1,330 high-rise dwellings on land once named one of the most toxic sites in the Bay Area might sound crazy, but that's what a Marin developer wants to do near the popular Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond.
Not only that, he wants to rely on fans -- powered by bay breezes -- to pipe away fumes released from chemicals dumped in the ground decades ago.
As workers prepare to dig up a polluted marsh next to the site this week, the proposed development is drawing fire. Opponents say it is dangerous and that state watchdogs are asleep at the switch -- so they've enlisted the help of Contra Costa County's public health chief and an attorney who usually represents the developers of such sites .
"This is beyond the pale. It's irresponsible," said Peter Weiner, a San Francisco attorney. Weiner's clients usually are folks who want to clean up and build on polluted sites, including former military bases. This time, he is working pro bono for the other side.
But Richmond redevelopment officials don't think the plan is crazy at all. They note that several Bay Area developers have successfully built and sold homes on once-polluted land, from the nearby Marina Bay development to former military bases in Alameda and Novato.
The Richmond plan includes construction of townhouses. Because there is a risk of carcinogenic vapors from the ground below, builders would build vented crawlspaces underneath the dwellings and install pipes to carry fumes out through the roof. The vapors would be pushed through the pipes by wind-powered turbines.
"It's an absolute outrage to tell people that, 'Yeah, there are a lot of volatile organic compounds in the ground, but we'll have fans to whisk those away,' " Weiner said.
Developer Russell Pitto says his proposal to build the 45-acre Campus Bay community of 1,330 condominiums, townhouses and three high-rise residential towers will bring needed housing and revenue to financially struggling Richmond.
City redevelopment officials agree, saying high-density housing is an ideal use for land with such picturesque bay views. They praise Pitto for initiating a $6 million cleanup of wetlands surrounding the San Francisco Bay Trail, marshes that will be protected as habitat under the management of the East Bay Regional Parks District.
Opponents are fighting the proposal on many fronts. Some argue that bringing in 3,000 new residents will threaten endangered clapper rail birds. Others complain that 18-story high-rises will block views.
But questions about possible danger to people have attracted the attention of Contra Costa County's public health officer, Dr. Wendel Brunner.
The project cannot move forward with an environmental impact report until the Regional Water Quality Control Board declares whether homes could safely be built there.
But last month, Brunner asked the state's Environmental Protection Agency to transfer oversight to the Department of Toxic Substance Control, which he says has been in charge of every other complicated toxic site in Contra Costa County over the past 25 years. Brunner thinks the water board is ill-equipped to evaluate the risks to human health.
Last week, the EPA wrote Brunner that there will be a meeting about the issue soon. For now, the water board is the lead, and department scientists have been asked to help evaluate the plan. But Brunner said the matter is more urgent because the developer will begin restoring the marsh on Wednesday.
Pitto, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, said Campus Bay will be a safe and vibrant community where people want to live. He has complied with all the requests of state regulators thus far, and he said he will abide by whatever changes to design they might require.
No one disputes that the 85-acre area at the center of the controversy has a history of toxicity. The Stauffer Chemical Co. opened a plant there in 1897 to make sulfuric acid, dumping the iron pyrite cinders left over from its production into the marsh.
The company later expanded its operations, developing and manufacturing fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The plant -- which through corporate mergers came to be owned by Zeneca Corp. in the 1980s -- closed in 1997.
The land was so polluted that in 1998 the state water board named it a toxic "hot spot" -- one of the 10 most polluted sites in the Bay Area.
In 2002, Zeneca spent $20 million to neutralize acidic soils, haul away contaminated dirt and cap the land to seal in any remaining toxins. Zeneca sold the land to Pitto's Simeon Commercial Properties and its partner, developer Cherokee Investment Partners.
State water regulators said the land was safe for industrial use. Zeneca had used research-and-development labs on some 20 or so acres that are now rented out as a business park. Pitto plans to build more R&D office space on the remaining 40-plus acres where the land had been cleared and capped.
But the real estate market for such space went soft, and homes became a more profitable prospect. Housing is in high demand in fast-growing Contra Costa County, which is expected to add 250,000 people in the next 25 years. Pitto plans to sell the owner-occupied units for $260,000 up to $650,000 for townhouses closest to the shoreline.
Environmental standards are much higher for homes than for industrial areas, because children and the elderly will be present 24 hours a day. In Campus Bay, the groundwater and soil still contain volatile organic chemicals that could escape from the ground in gas form, especially if cracks ever develop in the cap.
Exposure to these chemicals has been associated with a range of human health problems, from throat irritation and nausea to central-nervous-system damage and cancers.
Environmental consultants say removal of the chemicals would be too expensive, would take as long as 10 years and might not work over the long term. Instead, they propose to use "engineering controls" to reduce the risk of toxic vapors ever affecting future residents.
Homes would be built over open breezeways or ventilated garages. Bay winds and fans would be used to blow any accumulating toxic vapors away.
"We think it is pretty clear on a technical level that there won't be any real exposure to vapors," said Jim Levine, founder of Levine-Fricke, the environmental management company working with Pitto on cleanup issues.
Still, the use of wind-powered turbines or fans to propel fumes out of living spaces is unusual, said Barbara Cook, chief of the toxic substance department's Northern California coastal cleanup operations.
"That's something new for us," said Cook. "We haven't seen that." Her staff is currently researching the issue, she said.
The fate of homes is undecided, but the water board has approved the restoration of 22 acres of marshes nearby. The scars left by nearly a century of pollution there are clear -- most visibly in the form of a red-orange pond reflecting the color of iron pyrite cinders dumped there.
Opponents say that while they think the marsh desperately needs to be cleaned up, they have little confidence it will be done safely.
Among them is Sherry Padgett, who said she saw from her office next door how Zeneca managed its cleanup of the property in 2002. She watched as tons of contaminated soil were trucked away and said crews did little to control the dust.
The company was permitted to monitor the cleanup and used only one air quality monitor -- installed behind a building where the wind was blocked --
to check for toxic air pollution, she said. Padgett admits her interest in the issue is personal. Last year, a rare tumor called a chondroma, a precursor to bone cancer, was diagnosed, and Padgett had surgery to remove four ribs and part of her sternum. This summer, a different kind of rare tumor in her thyroid was diagnosed, she said.
"I don't know if it is related," Padgett said. "But there was no governmental agency out there protecting us, 24 hours a day, during the dismantling of one of the most toxic sites in the state of California."
E-mail Kelly St. John at email@example.com.