A flock of birds flies over marshland at the South Richmond Marshes on April 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The new year is a make-or-break moment for a Richmond housing development atop a contaminated former waterfront site once owned by the global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
Plans for developing as many as 4,000 units on the site have survived scrutiny by officials and legal challenges from environmental groups; the Richmond City Council approved the development years ago.
“The science of sea level rise is progressing, we're listening to the community, and we're saying we want more evaluation,” Ian Utz, project manager for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, told KQED.
“This is a world-class scary cornucopia of chemicals, many of which will never degrade,” said Kristina Hill, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley. “It just seems to me on its face to be an injustice and, frankly, stupid to put housing on a contaminated site.”
Utz will soon issue his revisions to the cleanup plan and outline next steps for the project, just as Eduardo Martinez, a new progressive mayor, takes over Richmond with the goal of forcing the company to haul away the contaminated soil, rather than the city’s current plan of removing some and capping the remainder.
“If you make a mess in the corner, you don't just leave it there; you clean it up. Otherwise, it becomes even more unusable,” Martinez said.
The 87-acre field of weeds and rubble with a view of Treasure Island, downtown San Francisco, the Berkeley shoreline and the Bay Bridge was once Stauffer Chemical. Climate models show this acreage nearly surrounded by water in just a few decades.
The company dumped iron pyrite cylinders into the marsh near the site and made pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Zeneca Corp., now called AstraZeneca, purchased the site in the 1980s. The company manufactured sulfuric acid and pesticides and closed the site in 1997; shortly after, the federal government deemed it a Superfund site. The developer, HRP Campus Bay Property LLC, did not return KQED emails for comment.
Local climate activists, like 34-year-old Marisol Cantú with the Richmond Progressive Alliance, said that a developer building homes on a toxic site will only further environmental injustice and compromise the health of residents in this city of nearly 90% people of color.
“People are unaware because I think they are simply trying to survive,” said Cantú of buried contaminants like lead and benzene. She organizes a youth-led climate justice podcast, Richmond Listening Project.
“When you tell them there's a contaminated site, and the [city] wants to build residential housing on it, they're flabbergasted," she said.
If construction begins on the housing development and there’s still contamination in the soil, Cantú said advocates will protest.
“I could see community members and environmental justice advocates, laying themselves down human-chain-style to make sure that no bulldozers pass,” she said.
Two decades of community pushback against the development project have made the AstraZeneca site one of the highest-profile sites in the region. Hundreds, if not thousands, of polluted areas litter the shoreline. Developers are pursuing plans to build homes or businesses above many of these, like the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.
At the same time, cities are under pressure to build more homes because of the region's critical need for affordable housing. The struggle at the Richmond site is an example of the growing challenge of developing the shoreline where the Bay Area’s industrial past intersects with its climate future.
'My community is not prepared'
In the late 1990s, Eric Blum built a tan two-story cinder block photography studio a block away from what looked like an abandoned field. It was the perfect spot for his product and nature photography studio — an industrial zone off Interstate 580.
Blum’s adult children explored the marsh south of AstraZeneca when they were young.
At first, his family was in awe of the colors in the water, soil and a short cliff rising out of the marsh — a mix of purple, apricot and amber hues that almost mirrored the color of the sunset over the water.
In the coming years, he realized some of those vibrant colors were from the contamination, and should have been a kind of skull-and-crossbones warning sign.
“My kids walked around the marsh because it was beautiful,” he said. “I didn’t find out until later it was arsenic and heavy metals flowing around.”
AstraZeneca isn’t the only hazardous site in Richmond; there are 115 toxic spots across the city of 115,000 people, according to a KQED review of state contamination records.
These sites include a chemical laboratory where gases, like chloroform, are seeping up through cracks in the building’s foundation from polluted groundwater underneath the property; and gases, heavy metals, fumigants and pesticides have permeated groundwater, soil and surface water at Chevron’s Richmond refinery.
Young Richmond residents of color, like 18-year-old climate activist Lizbeth Ibarra, have called for the complete cleanup of contaminated sites like AstraZeneca.
“My generation and future generations are going to be the ones left to deal with even worse consequences than we're already experiencing,” she said.
Ibarra, a member of Youth Vs. Apocalypse, is sounding an alarm bell over climate issues in her hometown. She says people here often don't have much time to consider future climate impacts.
“My community is not prepared, or even really aware of sea level rise and what can happen because I know a lot of us are working-class people who are just trying to survive,” she said.
'We're stuck because of a political maneuver'
A marsh and a narrow bike trail separate the toxic site from the bay. It’s clear why developers want to turn this patch of land into shoreline housing. The property, filled with yellow flowers and shades of green shrubbery, is beautiful, with the Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco skylines in view and the natural allure of the bayfront: Birds, porpoises and crabs fill the water below.
In 2019, the Richmond City Council approved a cleanup plan proposed by the state to remove portions of the contaminated soil and cap the rest with a protective seal above ground. The partial cleanup was not the preferred option of many residents like Blum.
“We’re stuck because of a political maneuver,” he said.
Tom Butt was the city's mayor until this month. He pushed for the project and said he was “comfortable” with the DTSC and council-approved plan to leave toxics under a residential housing development.
“Housing is our biggest need statewide and region-wide right now, and this would go a long way toward fulfilling that,” he said.
'Groundwater is the conveyor belt for the chemicals'
The company-led sea level rise evaluation (PDF) prepared by consultants found that there will be no negative impacts from rising seas by the year 2050. Still, the developer might have to modify an underground barrier to treat groundwater before it reaches the bay by the end of the century.
UC Berkeley’s Hill and University of Arkansas geosciences professor Kevin Befus, who worked on projects for the U.S. Geological Survey modeling groundwater in the Bay Area, reviewed the evaluation for DTSC.
Hill’s critique of the AstraZeneca study centers on the model the company’s consultants used to examine rising groundwater, which took a profile of the existing water table and raised it as “if it were frozen in shape.”
That’s like a “cartoon version” of how liquid moves, she said. “Groundwater isn't like ice; it's going to leak out to the sides. It won't rise in some areas as much. In others, it may rise a lot.”
The other independent reviewer, Befus, said his main concern is that the company’s report primarily focused on flooding hazards and not on how rising groundwater will affect contamination.
“Groundwater is the conveyor belt for the chemicals,” he said, adding that DTSC should further look at how sea level rise will alter the hydrology under the site. “[The company’s] approach is just not useful for saying which direction chemicals are going to flow. Are they going to flow faster with sea level rise? That's just not how their model was built.”
A clear and easy-to-understand map of how water moves underground should be “absolutely required.”
“Doing the due diligence now to make sure that 100 years from now, it isn't someone else's big headache, a big expense and doesn't threaten people's lives, I think that's hugely important,” he said.
In an emailed statement, AstraZeneca officials said the company is awaiting a response from DTSC.
A new state regulator scrutinizes old cleanup plans
When DTSC hired the 27-year-old Utz as the new project manager at the AstraZeneca site in 2021, some residents were nervous. For years, they had pressed local leaders and state regulators for stronger cleanup plans at the site to little avail. They were worried a new project lead would only mean more of the same.
But that skepticism began to disappear when Utz asked Hill and Befus to review the sea level rise analysis.
“We’re overjoyed to see this new guy,” said Robert Cheasty, executive director of the group Citizens for East Shore Parks and one of the lawyers behind several lawsuits over the cleanup.
Community advocates like environmental attorney Stuart Flashman have failed to stop the project or force a more stringent cleanup through litigation.
“He’s the first person I’ve seen in a position of authority that’s saying, ‘You know what? We got to follow the science,’” said Flashman.
Utz said he would issue revisions to the company-led evaluation sometime this month. For now, he won’t say whether the cleanup plan will change.
“We're going to follow where the science leads us,” he told KQED in November. “The sea level rise evaluation is not a one-and-done thing.”
Toxics in the ground are mixing like 'a big ball of spaghetti'
On an abnormally cold October day, Hill and two of her graduate students gathered around a dappled ivory- and gray-colored table eight miles from the toxic site in a lab at UC Berkeley.
Hill, with short blond hair and wearing a tan motorcycle jacket, characterized the toxics in the ground in Richmond as “a big ball of spaghetti” and said the company should thoroughly clean up the site before it is redeveloped.
Her group has mapped potential plumes of toxic contamination, and Hill said they are likely moving in multiple directions toward sewer lines, businesses and a neighborhood of tract homes southwest of the Superfund site. The group has not measured for contamination in sewers.
The toxics are also potentially moving because of the topography below the site. AstraZeneca sits above a historic, compacted riverbed, one of a bunch of fingers of an old river valley that meanders underneath Richmond.
“Everybody living on one of those fingers is going to be more affected by groundwater than people who live off of those fingers,” she said.
Blum’s Richmond photography studio, a block from the site, sits above one of the fingers of this old riverbed. He’s worried contaminants are inching toward his property.
“I don't want to be afraid of the soil I work on,” he said.
A DTSC-led groundwater remediation project could clean up the plume, but it’s still in the design phase.
The precautionary principle
Wearing a brilliant blue T-shirt with "Vote for Eduardo for Mayor” inscribed in a mustard hue, Martinez walked a thin strip of asphalt separating the bay from the toxic site last April. His wispy gray hair flounced in the wind whipping off the bay.
“I always operate on the precautionary principle, which says that nothing should be there until it's all cleaned up,” he said.
A 100% cleanup is the mission of the 73-year-old. He said he aims to reverse the City Council’s decision under the previous mayor for a lesser cleanup.
“The mayor controls the narrative, and I intend to do that,” he said.
The fact that industry buried pollution in the soil is a symptom of the lack of care for communities of color like Richmond, according to UC Davis American Studies professor Javier Arbona, who lives in the city.
“The disposability of this landscape is linked to white supremacy,” he said. “I keep thinking of this as a site where there is so much human sacrifice.”
The temporary cap over the contaminated soil hides a legacy of devaluing the land and the people who live and work on it, he said, walking along the barbed fence line surrounding the site.
“Caring for each other also means thinking about the cleanliness of these sites, their preservation and access to these places,” he said.
Requiring a complete cleanup of the AstraZeneca site would be a form of repair for past wrongs and would prevent future harm to people and the environment, in his view.
“It could show that victories are attainable,” he said.
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