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  Hearing on Campus Bay Exposes Dysfunctional Environmental Agencies
November 7, 2004

On November 6, 2003, Assemblymember Loni Hancock chaired a Joint Hearing of Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials and the Select Committee on Environmental Justice at the UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station to discuss the participation of state environmental agencies and the public in site cleanups.

Also participating were Assemblymember Cindy Montanez (39th Assembly District), Chair of the Select Committee on Environmental Justice, and Assemblymember John Laird (27th Assembly District), Chair of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. 

The focus of the hearing, attended by well over 100 people, was on the process used to plan, approve and monitor the cleanup of the proposed Campus Bay project, the site of 100 years of chemical manufacturing by a succession of companies, the last of which was Zeneca.

One of the principle themes was how and why either the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) or the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), both sub-agencies of the California Environmental Protection Agency, becomes the lead agency for cleanups of sites with toxic materials. The short answer, provided by Rick Brausch, Assistant Secretary for External Affairs, California EPA, is that the lead agency designation occurs in one of two ways: (1) Either agency has the authority to initiate an enforcement action, and that agency remains in control when a cleanup subsequently occurs, or (2) A project sponsor selects and approaches one or the other agency to regulate a cleanup. Both agencies, it appears, operate on independent statutory authority and are sub-agencies to CalEPA only for organizational purposes. Based on testimony from several people, including Contra Costa Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner, the two agencies do not cooperate well and have different skill sets and capabilities.

In the case of Campus Bay, explained Brausch, the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board had been active on the site for decades and therefore became the lead agency for the cleanup project at that site.

The reason for concern, according to a number of public speakers, environmental activists, and Contra Costa Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner, is that DTSC is perceived to have a more complete and appropriate skill set than RWQCB to review, regulate and monitor complex cleanup projects.

The principal flaw in the Campus Bay cleanup, according to a host of speakers, was the lack of monitoring for a huge amount of dust, assumed to contain a witch’s brew of toxic materials, generated over a long period of time. According to testimony of owners and employees of neighboring businesses, the dust from cleanup operations routinely covered everything and sometimes even “blocked out the sun.” The RWQCB was criticized for inadequate public notice and participation in the cleanup process and for turning a deaf ear to a stream of complaints from the public.

Speakers were not only critical of the RWQCB for a lack of monitoring but also of the City of Richmond for issuing a demolition permit for dozens of structures used for manufacturing and storing toxic chemicals on the site with no conditions whatsoever. Whatever improvement and increased interest there has been on the part of the RWQCB has been only as a result of massive public activism.

Speakers from a panel of environmental activists that included Sherry Padgett of Bay Area Residents for Responsible Government, Marlene Grossman of Pacoima Beautiful and Jane Williams of California Communities Against Toxics, echoed the theme of irresponsibility of state and local agencies in the cleanup of Superfund sites. They concluded that local government, in particular, was more interested in economic development than human health.

Richmond Redevelopment Agency Director Steve Duran received catcalls from the audience when he stated that his agency’s highest priority was, in fact, public health. Duran went on to explain why redevelopment of “brownfield” sites, such as Campus Bay is good public policy. He noted that cleaning up brownfields and developing urban housing is consistent with Smart Growth, Contra Costa County’s Saving Our Future compact and ABAG’s housing goals. The tax increment from former brownfield sites along Richmond’s formerly industrial shoreline, such as Marina Bay, provides funding that can be moved into redevelopment of areas, such as the Iron Triangle, that suffer from poverty, crime, blight and high unemployment.

Richmond Planning Director Barry Cromartie was listed on the program agenda but failed to show.

Where was the Campus Bay developer, Simeon-Cherokee, in all this? Dwight Stenseth, Managing Director of Cherokee Investment Partners, got a better reception than some of the government speakers. He characterized his company as the leading brownfields developer in the world, and Simeon’s Russ Pitto told me that they were caught in the middle on jockeying among state and local agencies. All they wanted was a cleanup plan that they could rely on so that they could get the job done right.

All in all, it was a very informative meeting. Here is what I brought away from it:

  • The process for selection and involvement of state agencies in toxic site cleanups is dysfunctional and needs to be reformed.

  • State agencies are not proactively and effectively involved in monitoring cleanup activities, including reacting to public complaints. Too much authority is given to project sponsors, consultants and contractors for self-monitoring.

  • The City of Richmond relegates too much authority to state and federal agencies for regulation. The City’s highest priority should be the health and welfare if its residents, present and future. The City’s “hands-off” attitude is wrong. The City should ensure, with qualified third-party consultants paid for by project sponsors, that permit recipients are meeting requirements and that state and federal agencies are doing their jobs. The City of Richmond Planning Department does a poor job, at best, of monitoring mitigations incorporated into CEQA documents. In fact, the City of Richmond traditionally sees itself as an extension of project sponsors’ staff and a partner in projects rather than a guardian of the health and welfare of Richmond residents. This needs to be changed.

  • The issuance of demolition permits in Richmond is currently a ministerial action, with no review of potential consequences. This needs to be remedied so that demolition permits are discretionary and a CEQA review is required, at least in some cases.

  • I have no more faith in DTSC than I do in the RWQCB to oversee cleanup projects. The last major cleanup fiasco in Richmond, commonly known as the extraterrestrial landing pad” east of Brickyard and Seacliff Estates. The same problem has plagued the Air Quality Management District. Environmental activists and litigation by organizations such as Communities for a Better Environment has had to force these state agencies to do a job that they are not otherwise inclined to do.

Although the hearing focused on site cleanup, there is a related controversy involving the future use of the site. Some of it involves the appropriateness of housing, related to the level and nature of cleanup, and the other part relates to more traditional land use issues of density, traffic and design.