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Health Officials Say Campus Bay Safe for Current Use, Not Homes

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 08/20/2008 - 10:00pm

While state and county health officials said a chemically contaminated site in southeast Richmond poses no dangers to their current users, concerns remain about past users and those to come.

They also acknowledge that their findings don’t include the possible interactions between the more than 100 toxic metals and chemicals found at the site.

Ethel Dotson, who initiated the Community Advisory Group [CAG] now advising the state about cleanups at Campus Bay and UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station, died Nov. 1 in the firm conviction her cancer was caused by exposure during her childhood.

Dotson and her brother Whitney, a current CAG member, spent their early years at Seaport Warhousing Apartments, a complex built to house a largely African American population of workers who came to the city to build the ships that carried troops to victory in the war.

The apartments were adjacent to the massive chemical manufacturing complex that once stood on the Campus Bay site.

“We do know from the historical record that a lot of stuff happened in the past that should not be allowed to happen again,” said Contra Costa County Pubic Health Director Wendel Brunner Thursday night.

“But we cannot undo the past,“ he said, and many questions will remain unanswered.

Brunner and Dr. Richard Kreutzer of the state Department of Health Services came to the CAG to present the draft Public Health Assessment evaluating the impact of exposures arising from the Campus Bay site, where plans for a 1440-unit condominium and apartment complex have been derailed by community activists.

For the century between 1897 and 1997, the site housed a massive chemical manufacturing complex with factories that produced herbicides and pesticides, as well as fertilizers and other chemicals.

It was Ethel Dotson who discovered that the facility had also been used for uranium-melting experiments, and CAG member Sherry Padgett and others have found that the site also processed another toxic metal, beryllium.

Richmond activists, including the Dotsons, Sherry Padgett, Claudia Carr and Henry Clark were galvanized by the first round of cleanup at the site, which included the largely unsupervised demolition of the chemical plant.

The initial cleanup, conducted under the aegis of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, produced large clouds of dust that settled on nearby business and left 350,000 cubic yards of contaminated earth buried on the site.

The activists gained the support of Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), joined by then-colleague Cindy Montanez, Brunner and other officials who pressured the state Environmental Protection Agency in November, 2004, into transferring partial oversight to the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC)—which unlike the water board, is staffed with scientists who specialize in poisonous chemicals.

The state also gave DTSC oversight of the remainder of the cleanup at Campus Bay along with the adjacent Richmond Field Station (RFS)—over the university’s objections—in May, 2005.

The health survey was launched a month before the handover and was conducted by the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the state public health agency, represented Thursday night by Kreutzer.

The report concludes that exposures to a wide range of hazardous compounds with possible effects ranging from cancer to impaired neurological development were probably “at unhealthy levels, especially for Seaport children.”

CAG and community members had plenty of questions.

One criticism that has surfaced repeatedly is the failure of the survey to tackle the possible interactive effects of the stew of compounds that spewed into the air and groundwater at the site.

Dr. Michael Esposito, a retired UC Berkeley scientist who chairs the CAG’s toxics committee, cited the interactions “between certain pesticides and herbicides and Tagamet,” a prescription medication commonly prescribed for ulcers. Esposito said the interaction leads to a thousand-fold increased in the probability of strokes.

With well over a hundred different metals, pesticides, herbicides, PCBs, volaatile organic compounds and solvents found on the site, Esposito said, “at some point common sense will tell you that their interactions are multiplicative.”

The standards used by the survey don’t consider possible synergistic effects, and only add one set of individual risks to another when considering interactions.

Padgett, who works in a building adjacent to the site and has been stricken with a variety of rare cancers and other ailments, said the report cover should “carry a big black box” noting that most of the studies cited only looked at individual chemical impacts.

Several CAG and community members said that recent discoveries of the use of beryllium and the earlier reports that a fertilizer that often produces radioactive waste had been made at the site came from CAG members and not government officials.

“This report was done with the information that was currently available to us from DTSC,” said Brunner.

The county health official also said that the site isn’t presently suitable for housing, “but should be cleaned up to residential standards” if Cherokee-Simeon Venters, the partnership that owns Campus Bay, renews their original plans.