Despite the positive light cast upon pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca for its role in distributing more than 1 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine abroad, the mess left behind by its chemical manufacturing plant in south Richmond reveals the problems with Big Pharma and the agencies we trust to protect us.
Community and environmental justice organizations have filed a suit against the California Environmental Protection Agency, or CEPA, and the Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, after a proposal to build housing on a toxic waste site left behind by a roughly 100-year-old manufacturing plant, most recently operated by Zeneca, now AstraZeneca. Chemicals still remain at the site, some of which are highly volatile and carcinogenic.
The city of Richmond formerly supported a high level of cleanup for toxic waste and the standard cleanup effort for the site of a housing development. But in 2019, Richmond City Council changed the cleanup standard while Shopoff Realty Investments began planning for the construction of 4,000 housing units. The current proposal calls for a 2% cleanup of the toxins and a large concrete cap to be placed over remaining waste.
The DTSC claimed the capping method is more environmentally favorable than a complete excavation, which would involve an estimated 64,370 truck trips, “increased air pollution, dangerous traffic and more dust.”
But a 2% cleanup does not suffice. While the toxins are above groundwater level now, that won’t always be the case. Groundwater levels will rise along with sea levels, and it could take less than a decade for groundwater to reach the toxins. This would place the entire San Francisco Bay Area ecosystem at risk. Communities living on or around the waste site will face a harrowing health hazard.
Before it is too late, CEPA and DTSC must recognize the increased risks caused by sea level rise and alter their plans accordingly.
Current and future Bay Area residents could be affected for years to come, and the current proposal flagrantly disregards principles of environmental justice that call for the health and safety of all communities. If the issue is not remediated, it could set a disturbing precedent for companies in the East Bay. If AstraZeneca gets off the hook, what is stopping other companies from polluting the East Bay in the same fashion?
The impetus should fall on the multibillion-dollar companies — not host cities — to clean up toxic waste left behind. CEPA and DTSC must hold AstraZeneca accountable and fulfill their commitment to keeping California safe and clean.