Community groups in Richmond file lawsuit against state for inadequate toxic waste cleanup

photo of toxic Richmond waste site
Sherry Padgett/Courtesy
California agencies are being accused of incorrectly evaluating the consequences of rising sea levels and the toxicity of waste chemicals on a former manufacturing plant owned by AstraZeneca. Richmond’s City Council allegedly changed the environmental cleanup standards in exchange for a realty investor to build 4,000 housing units on the site.

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Community and environmental justice groups filed suit against California agencies over proposed housing units to be built on the site of AstraZeneca’s former chemical manufacturing plant in south Richmond.

The groups feel that the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, should not have allowed developers HRP Campus Bay Property LLC to build 4,000 housing units on the toxic waste site.

They noted that the agencies did not adequately evaluate the impacts of sea-level rise and toxicity of trichloroethylene, or TCE, a chemical found in substantial amounts at the site, according to Richmond Shoreline Alliance co-chair Pam Stello.

“It’s a crazy proposal, who in this day and age would propose putting housing on top of a remediated toxic waste site,” said Robert Cheasty, a lawyer representing several groups involved. “Consequently, the people in the community are up in arms about it.”

The site was operated for almost 100 years, and AstraZeneca and Stauffer Chemical Company dumped numerous toxic, volatile chemicals that are still there, Cheasty alleged.

The current proposal is to remove 2% of chemicals there and place a large concrete cap on it, according to Stello.

“As the sea level rises, and as the waters in the bay rise, the groundwater level will also rise accordingly,” said Stuart Flashman, environmental and land use attorney. “So what that means is that the toxins are not going to be above the groundwater level very long, by maybe 2030, certainly by 2050, that groundwater is going to be coming in, hitting and mobilizing those toxins.”

The toxins will then move into the bay and the surrounding properties, causing further contamination, Flashman alleged.

The TCE at the site is highly toxic and carcinogenic, to the degree where it causes cancers and can move through concrete by vapor intrusion, meaning the barrier will not be enough, according to Flashman.

“The state of California, their own scientific projections are that sea levels could rise seven and a half feet by the end of the century, and groundwater will also be rising as a result,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. “This is reckless and endangers people’s health and endangers the San Francisco ecosystem.”

The community groups want the site cleaned up to the highest level instead of what is currently being done, Cheasty noted, rather than opposing the housing project.

In 2018, community groups thought they had achieved that goal, with Richmond’s City Council supporting a level 6 cleanup, said Andres Soto, co-chair of Richmond Shoreline Alliance.

However, the City Council struck a deal in 2019 with realty investor Shopoff to change the cleanup standard in exchange for building the 4,000 housing units, Soto alleged.

“In San Francisco, at the Hunters Point Shipyard Superfund site, the city, county, state and federal agencies admit they have not considered the latest sea level projections, yet plan on leaving atomic bomb residue buried at sea level,” Angel alleged. “It is insanity, and it’s a site where thousands of luxury homes are proposed.”

This is not just a Richmond problem, Angel said.

The community groups are planning a demonstration Aug. 30 with several other communities around the state who believe DTSC does not sufficiently protect the communities it serves, Soto added.

In a statement, DTSC noted that they engaged with communities prior to making a decision on the cleanup standards at the site. The statement adds that the decision minimizes “adverse impacts on public health and safety” when compared to other strategies.

HRP Campus Bay Property LLC, which is related to Shopoff, declined a request for comment as of press time.

Contact Ryan Teoh at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @RyanTeoh001.