The Activist

The Clean up Zeneca edition

Issue 278: 10-14-2019

In this issue:

Fighting a legacy of toxic pollution
Council does U-Turn on Zeneca site
Building on toxic waste - and perpetuating environmental racism
Arsenic at the Zeneca site
Why Butt's answers don't hold water (or waste)
Regulatory capture
A full clean up of Zeneca now!
10/16: No Coal in Richmond community meeting
10/24: Understanding our city, building community power
10/26: Building progressive power in CCC
10/26: RPA membership meeting
10/31: Monthly film night: This Changes Everything

Fighting a legacy of toxic pollution

The story began in 1887, shortly after the California Gold Rush. But Stauffer Chemical Company wasn’t bringing gold to Richmond, it was bringing fool’s gold, pyrite. Through a heavy industrial process, the company used pyrite to manufacture sulfuric acid, which could be used for a wide variety of purposes –including producing fertilizers and chemicals. But the process also produced extremely harmful byproducts, which were captured in "chemical ponds." Over the course of the century, the 85-acre area, located just north of Point Isabel, became one of the most toxic sites in the state. It wasn’t until over 100 years later, in 1997, that Swiss chemical giant AstraZeneca (which had, after several mergers, inherited the site), closed the facility. Beginning in 1999, Zeneca demolished the buildings, and began a poorly-managed “clean up” effort, which saved them money but cut corners. Instead of adequately properly dealing with the hazardous waste, Zeneca mixed the contaminated soil with limestone and topped it with a concrete “cap,” a strategy that was meant to be only temporary.

To make matters worse, UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station next door had also been sitting on hazardous waste, a legacy of previous munitions manufacturing on the site. The university was responsible for cleaning up the waste on its property, but instead of properly disposing of it, it illegally transferred tons of contaminated soil to the Zeneca site in the early 2000s. Both the university and AstraZeneca were fined over $500,000 in 2009 for illegally storing and transferring hazardous waste, and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control ordered an emergency clean-up.

But this was far too little, far too late. In the early 2000s, scientists studying mudsucker fish in the nearby marsh (which stays in its limited range), found links between chemicals present at the site and genetic damage and tumors. Some fish even exhibited both male and female sexual organs.

There seemed to be human health impacts as well. As described in a 2018 East Bay Express article,

People began to get sick. Sherry Padgett, who owned a business nearby, developed multiple melanomas. Barbara Stauss said her husband worked in an office on the Zeneca site and used to walk around the area on his lunch hour. He developed cancer and died. Concerned residents didn't have the means to prove that these illnesses were connected to the "cleanup" and the toxins that remained, however. But Padgett and other Richmond residents formed the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group (RSSA CAG) and began to agitate for a comprehensive cleanup. Fifteen years later, they're still at it.

This edition of The Activist focuses on the toxic Zeneca site. It is a story about industrial pollution, the perpetuation of environmental racism, the corporate capture of our regulatory agencies, and the tenacity of local activists to fight back and champion the clean and healthy future we all deserve.

- Michelle Chan, editor

Council does U-Turn on Zeneca site

The following is an excerpt of an excellent September 25, 2019 Richmond Pulse article by Edward Booth, which summarizes the current status of the Zeneca site. It was published shortly after a September 24, 2019 vote of the City Council.

The Richmond City Council has voted to support a development plan that includes capping and then building on the polluted Zeneca site.

The Zeneca site, which has a history of heavy contamination, is located between the Richmond Annex and Marina Bay area. The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) took control of managing the area in 2005.

The developer, Irvine-based Shopoff Realty Investments, looks to build 4,080 residential units on 320 acres along the south Richmond shoreline. The planned 65-acre development at the Zeneca site would include residential units, a grocery store, restaurants and a waterfront park, according to a 10-minute Shopoff presentation to council Tuesday.

Shopoff also promised a community benefits agreement of $52 million, with $40 million going to the Richmond Promise scholarship program.

On July 10 last year, after much community feedback, the council unanimously voted to pursue a full cleanup of the site prior to developing it, which would involve digging up the toxic soil and hauling it elsewhere. This was in opposition to a DTSC recommendation of capping the site, which public commenters argued wouldn’t do enough to ensure the health of locals and the environment . . .

Andres Soto criticized Councilmembers Nat Bates and Demnlus Johnson III, the councilmembers who sponsored the resolution and the only two who weren’t on the council during the July meeting. Soto, like others, said no one was against developing the site. They only disagreed with the method of managing the toxic material.

“Nobody is disputing the need to develop,” Soto said. “But the idea was we were going to clean this up, we weren’t going to do the old Richmond way where you cut a backroom deal, where people’s health is compromised because you want to put some change in your pocket.”…

To read the full article, click here.

Building on toxic waste - and perpetuating environmental racism

Toxic waste sites can be found all across the United States, but they are not distributed evenly throughout communities. Unsurprisingly, they are disproportionately located in communities of color – a prime example of environmental racism. In fact, a 2015 study found that neighborhoods with already disproportionate and growing concentrations of people of color seem to ‘attract’ new toxic waste sites (rather than toxic sites coming first, and then ‘attracting’ low-income folks who can’t afford to live anywhere else).

In the Bay Area, the correlation between race and pollution can be seen clearly through a tool called CalEnviroScreen, or California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool. This tool identifies communities that are disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, pollution. The Zeneca site is located in an area that ranks in the 81- 90 percentile, which means that it is heavily overburdened by multiple sources of pollution.  

The proposal which the City Council approved in September envisions only a partial cleanup of the site. Schools, daycares, and senior centers will be forbidden on the site, as will any ground-floor residences. The DTSC fully acknowledges that these toxic leaks will happen (it’s not a matter of “might”), and hopes that continuous monitoring of “engineering controls” -- physical arrangements for ventilation – will be enough. 

As described in the article below, this partial clean-up will allow toxic substances to remain at the site, where they can leak, move, and continue exposing the largely Latino and black neighborhood. The project is supposed to provide jobs for the people of Richmond, but the jobs will be working on the ground floors of buildings over toxic waste producing dangerous fumes.  Who will be working those jobs?

Environmental justice requires that we take the necessary steps to make polluted areas safer — not perpetuate, or make permanent, the pollution. It is not acceptable that some places and communities, especially those who are poor, become multi-generational “sacrifice zones.” That’s why the Richmond City Council voted unanimously to support a full clean-up of the Zeneca site last year. Our elected officials at the time knew that we cannot keep internalizing racism by allowing black and brown communities to live with pollution. We deserve better. We deserve a full clean-up. We deserve justice.

Arsenic at the Zeneca site

The Zeneca site is contaminated with dozens of harmful and cancer-causing chemicals (see above), but the toxic compound found in the highest volume is arsenic, which is extremely harmful even in small quantities. Human exposures to arsenic can come through multiple pathways, i.e., through skin contact to particles in air, soil, or water; or through ingestion though the nose or mouth.

The current proposal is to excavate toxic soils from old chemical evaporation ponds, clean up additional soils and then put them under a “cap” (made of cellulose, fibers, clean soil, cement, etc.) to physically block many of these pathways. But the Zeneca site is earthquake prone, and already experiencing sea level rise. Both of these things can compromise the cap in the long term, allowing water to leak into and under it, and mobilizing the toxic materials underneath. Also, while part of the site will be capped, there is no cap or physical barrier proposed for the adjacent marsh and shoreline “green” spaces.

It should be noted that much of the marsh area was originally the Bay. It became a marsh after many years of “fill” being pushed into the bay that was primarily composed of the arsenic-laden “cinders”, a waste product from the Stauffer Chemical plant that was active for over 100 years before Zeneca purchased the site. After the green areas are replanted and landscaped, it may look a lot more attractive (maybe even "safe"), even though they may still be heavily contaminated.

But arsenic is not only found in the soil at the Zeneca site; it is also found in the groundwater. In some spots, arsenic levels are as high as 600 micrograms per liter – about 60 times greater than Environmental Protection Agency limits (which say that levels over 10 micrograms per liter pose a risk to human health). According to Stephen Linsley, Environmental Compliance Supervisor for the West County Wastewater District and a member of the Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group, once arsenic has poisoned the groundwater, it is difficult to eliminate unless the surrounding soil and sediment is completely removed. That’s in part because groundwater can move the arsenic through soils, potentially even re-contaminating soils that have been remediated.

That’s why activists for so long have insisted that a full clean-up of the Zeneca site is the only acceptable solution. The DTSC has not yet been able to say how many sites, facing similar conditions, have used a cap to successfully and safely contain contaminants over the long term.

What we do know is that other shoreline sites, less than a town or two away, at a fraction of the size, and with a fraction of the toxics by volume and types that exist at the Zeneca site, have had their “engineered protections” fail. For example, large, expensive, multi-year lawsuits like the ones around the Oakland Estuary Condos are likely to cost much more than if the polluters had been required to conduct an extensive dig-and-haul cleanup the first time around. 

Why Butt's answers don't hold water (or waste)

In defending their vote to build 4000 units of housing on top of a toxic waste site, Mayor Butt and other Councilmembers have made several arguments. Here are some responses to these arguments:

"Capping and encapsulation of toxic waste has been done successfully elsewhere."

Perhaps, but consider all the reasons why those experiences do not apply at the Zeneca site. (See the article above.)

"The proposed method will result in safe conditions."

The so-called “safe conditions” include:

  • Not allowing any school or senior center to be built on the site
  • Not having residences on the ground floor, requiring all construction now and in the future to be multi-unit, even though this is in a very seismically-susceptible location
  • Limiting all but the smallest landscaping to fit into 5x8x8 raised planter boxes
  • Requiring active ground floor ventilation and piping in the foundation to exhaust toxic gases that must exist and be maintained forever, even if the buildings are eventually replaced
  • Requiring scheduled monitoring and maintenance forever of the cap, barriers, and air extraction systems, in addition to never-ending indoor air monitoring.

"The DTSC will monitor the site forever.  If something goes wrong with the cap or the barriers it will be fixed."

The DTSC will require Zeneca to monitor the site; and the DTSC in turn will monitor Zeneca. This kind of monitoring tends to fade away when no one is watching or everyone is focused on other issues. For example, when we experience a serious earthquake we can assume that resources will be diverted to the areas with most damage.  It will be lot harder to repair/replace damaged containment once buildings are on top of it, assuming it will even be effectively possible.

"We don’t want the hazard of transporting that material with thousands of trucks through Richmond streets."

The majority of the original railroad tracks from the days of the Stauffer Chemical Plant are still in place.  To hook them back up to active lines, and maybe even using newer more energy efficient cars, is financially feasible for this project and responsible party. That would eliminate road congestion, air pollution, and reduce the loading time and trip volumes required to haul out the toxics, compared to using diesel trucks. In addition, using covered rail cars is an option in hauling out this material, unlike hauling coal.

"We shouldn’t move our problem to someone else’s neighborhood."

True -- toxic waste shouldn’t be in anyone’s neighborhood. But since the Zeneca pollution exists and has to be dealt with, it is better to be stored in a licensed, professionally managed site, that is geologically stable and completely lined with the right materials to prevent toxics from escaping. It should also be far away from surface and ground water and dense populations. It’s hard to imagine a worse plan than what is proposed for the Zeneca site: unlined hazardous waste dumps, where residents would live right on top of the toxics, and the bay would intrude on top of the uncapped parts of the shoreline to dissolve even more toxics, and spread them around to adjacent residents, recreators, and workers.      

"If Shopoff can’t build his project Richmond will lose the $52 million in community benefits."

If we can get the site cleaned up to the highest standard, its prime location (views AND central location to jobs and public transportation) will attract a lot more developers and residents to the area.  Conversely, because this is a “gateway” area and has high visibility among locals, visitors, and even passersby on the highway, a cleanup that fails at this site will encourage the belief in many that Richmond is a town where the expediency takes priority over the job well done.

We are likely to get a lot more in Community benefits, as well as a better project overall, if engineered protections and institutional memory are not required to keep people (and the environment) safe from the toxics.

"At least we get something done. Without this project, we would get nothing."

Actually, the Department of Toxic Substances Control has the power to order whatever method of clean-up they believe is best. Astra-Zeneca and their insurance company, AIG, may not want to pay for a full clean-up, but they are capable of doing so.  All that is required is for the DTSC to order the action.

"But the DTSC has experts and they recommend capping instead of removal."

After all the other arguments are debunked this seems to be the fallback -- see “Regulatory Capture,” below.

[Photo: Neighbors urge full clean up of Zeneca site at October 3, 2019 DTSC meeting]

[Photo: The late Ethel Dotson, environmental justice advocate and Co-founder of the Richmond South Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group (RSSA/CAG), grew up in Seaport Village very near the former Stauffer Chemical plant.]

Regulatory Capture

The DTSC draft makes the case for capping the toxic waste at Zeneca instead of removing it.  But a year ago, Tom Butt and other Council members challenged the DTSC, and demanded a full clean-up. Why does Butt now have confidence in the DTSC experts?

There are certainly excellent scientists who work for DTSC as well as people at all levels of the agency committed to protecting the environment and cleaning up toxic wastes. Regulatory capture is not about specific individuals or corruption, but how our system of government actually works.

Regulatory Capture describes how agencies put in place to monitor and control the excess of certain industries morph into agencies that enable and defend those very industries.

On a national level, we have seen recently how the Federal Aviation Authority, whose sole purpose is to ensure safety, developed a too-cozy relationship with Boeing: the FAA allowed and accepted Boeing’s determination of what designs were safe and what kinds of training were required, resulting in two major plane crashes. Locally, we know how the Public Utilities Commission has been effectively run by PG&E, until the San Bruno pipeline explosion and devastating fires of last year put the spotlight on the company.

There are dozens of other high-profile examples: the way the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is captured by the oil industry – something we saw in stark relief after the Deepwater Horizon Spill. How the FCC was captured by media conglomerates. How the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved every nuclear plant proposed.

Why does this happen? In some cases there may be straight-forward bribery. But for the most part, it is because the agencies -- particularly the administrative decision makers more than the scientific experts -- adopt the industry point of view towards regulations. Here are some of the pressures that make regulatory capture so widespread:

  1. Revolving Door. Many administrators and appointees are recruited from the industries they regulate. Those who have worked in government look to the industries they regulate for higher paying jobs, or jobs after retirement, or possibly jobs if their agency gets defunded.
  2. Political Pressure. Agencies that try to do a good job require funding, which comes through the political process. Typically, industry lobbyists persuade politicians to pressure agencies to take certain courses of action which benefit their corporate clients.
  3. "Expertise." In many fields, well-funded industry research and “experts” can challenge or overwhelm the science and analysis conducted by government agencies.
  4. Legal Resources. Most industries have far more legal staff and money available to pursue legal strategies than do regulatory agencies. Most agencies try to avoid lawsuits that would strap their resources and prevent them from doing their jobs.

The pattern of how our regulatory agencies work is clear. Regulatory agencies are usually created in the wake of a crisis, after public outcry. While the outcry lasts, the agencies try to do their job.  But when public attention goes elsewhere, regulators tend to get captured by industry (as a whole or by the most powerful portion of that industry). It is only when the public becomes engaged and even enraged, usually after an atrocity, that the agency is then reformed …for a while.

Of course, this doesn’t mean an agency will never do something that is in the best interest of the public.  After all, industry itself wants stability and some regulation. Hardworking, committed professionals try to do a good job, despite the pressures. But the pressures nonetheless persist, and Agency recommendations are often simply provide the sheen of “expert” opinion to legitimate political decisions. Only if the public is prepared to challenge agencies, can we counter the tendency toward regulatory capture.

A full clean up for Zeneca now!

Activists have been fighting for the full clean up of the Zeneca site for 15 years and are ready to give up! Check out three ways to get involved:

  • New working group: Community members are organizing a working group to help turn the situation around, with next meeting scheduled for Thursday, October 24 at 6:30 p.m., 1 Marina Way Drive. All are welcome.
  • Community Advisory Group meetings: The RSSAC/CAG meets with the DTSC on the 2nd Thursday of the month except for June and December. These meetings are open to the public, and showing up is important. The next CAG meeting is November 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the Richmond Room, Richmond City Hall 450 Civic Center Plaza.
  • City Council meetings: Speaking out at Richmond City Council during open forum is always a good way to educate the City Council and members of the public. If you need help figuring out what to say, ask a CAG member and they can help provide talking points. Richmond City Council meets on first and third Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. If you want to speak, sign up with City Clerk before the item (open forum) is called. 

10/16: No Coal in Richmond community meeting

The Richmond Coal Ordinance will be on the city council agenda for Tuesday, Nov. 5, 6:30 p.m.

This can be a monumental environmental justice win for Richmond.  Many of you have been with this campaign for more than two years: Thank you for hanging in there. Now it's time to rally all available energy, focus, and determination to get us over the finish line.  Please come out to our next community meeting:

No Coal in Richmond community meeting
Wednesday, October 16, 7 pm
Potluck dinner, doors open at 6:30
Bobby Bowens Progressive Center
2540 Macdonald Ave.

[Photo: from No Coal in Richmond website]

10/24: Understanding our city, building community power

The RPA is launching a series of four workshops to build community power and civic engagement – the first one will be this month.

Understanding our city, building community power
Thursday, October 24th 2019
6pm to 8:30pm
Safe Return Project
1011 MacDonald Avenue
Richmond CA, 94801

This workshop is intended to analyze power in the city through understanding how our city works and who holds power to be able to pass and implement policies. The purpose of the workshop is to provide community leaders with an analysis of what is needed to pass and implement policies at the city level. The session will feature Kathleen Morris, an Associate Professor of law at Golden State University, who will discuss how cities are the space for actively devising innovative policy solutions, and their potential to do even more. We will also invite Eli Moore, Program Manager, California Community Partnerships at Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, to present how “Ban the Box” was passed and implemented in the city of Richmond.

Please consider attending, or passing this onto Richmond residents you know who may be interested! Ideally, folks will be able to commit to all the entire workshop series:

  • Boards and Commissions: Our government back to the people (Thursday, November 14, 6-8:30pm)
  • Community participation: Real community participation to create and implement local policies (Thursday, November 21, 6-8:30pm)
  • United We Win! What political infrastructure we will need for the new majority (Thursday, December 5, 6-8:30pm)

[Photo: City Year Chicago]

10/26: Building progressive power in CCC

And for folks interested in getting involved at the county level, Lift Up Contra Costa (which the RPA is a part of) will be presenting a half-day workshop.

Deep Democracy 
Increasing local voice and building people power

Join us for this free, one-day, countywide event for like-minded residents of Contra Costa. "Deep Democracy," will feature a series of panels and break-out sessions on our shared vision for a progressive county, our targeted advocacy campaigns, and the crucial opportunities that 2020 presents.

Transportation, translation, food, and childcare will be provided. All are welcome!

Saturday, October 26th from 9:30 am - 3 pm
Pleasant Hill Senior Center
233 Gregory Ln, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523
RSVP at our Eventbrite page today!

10/26: Fall RPA membership meeting

Please mark your calendars! The next RPA membership meeting will be held:

Saturday, October 26, 2019
3 pm – 6 pm
Bobby Bowens Progressive Center
2540 Macdonald Ave., Richmond CA

All RPA members are welcome.  Membership can be renewed online or at the door. 


Agenda subject to change; more details forthcoming. 

  • RPA Endorsements for Richmond City Council (vote)
  • RPA Endorsement of Schools and Communities First initiative (vote)
  • Start endorsement process for Park District and other races (solicit volunteers)
  • Steering Committee Membership (vote) 

10/31: Monthly film night - This Changes Everything

Please join us for our monthly potluck and free movie at Bobby Bowens Progressive Center. In October, we will be screening This Changes Everything (1hr 30min)

Thursday, October 31
6:30pm Potluck / 7pm Screening
Bobby Bowens Progressive Center
2540 MacDonald Ave, Richmond

Less than 20% of the global population are responsible for 70% emissions. Those most affected by climate change and environmental injustice in developing countries have the least responsibility for creating this crisis in the first place.

A heads-up, no films are scheduled for November/December due to holidays. We are concluding the year with the most critical issue of our time – Climate Change vs. Capitalism in October. This Changes Everything (90 min) based on Naomi Klein’s book by the same title, which looks at seven communities around the world with the proposition that we can seize the crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better.  

And, don't forget your Halloween costumes and treats!