Many environmental justice communities across the Bay Area and the state have major legacy contamination sites from industrial and military activities that threaten public health and the environment. The California Department of Toxic Substance Control, or DTSC, a department of the California Environmental Protection Agency, or CalEPA, is charged with protecting the public and the environment from toxic contamination. However, it has failed, often for decades, to require proper and comprehensive cleanups at numerous toxic waste sites where the polluting companies can legally be held accountable to pay for remediations and cleanups. In some high-profile cases, DTSC and CalEPA’s irresponsible and reckless regulatory oversight has served the interests of polluters and left communities with potentially long-term health and environmental impacts.
The following examples, in just the San Francisco Bay Area, show a repeated pattern of DTSC and CalEPA ignoring the pleas of community organizations for the cleanup of dangerously contaminated sites in their communities.
The AstraZeneca site, also known as Campus Bay, is an 86-acre Superfund site — which is a highly polluted location requiring a long-term cleanup of hazardous material contaminations — on Richmond’s south shoreline. It contains 550,000 cubic yards of hazardous material left behind from more than a century of onsite chemical manufacturing, including more than 100 chemicals of concern, many of which cause cancer, reproductive damage and other serious health issues. The most recent cleanup plan approved by DTSC in 2019 for the construction of up to 4,000 residential units will remove less than 2% of contaminated soil. It will install a cement cap to cover the remaining toxics with no barriers on the sides or beneath the contaminants and rely on injecting chemicals into the groundwater to destroy the Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOC gases. This is despite repeated onsite failures of this VOC treatment to permanently attain safe levels for eight-hour worker shifts, let alone full-time residents. On Aug. 3, community groups sued DTSC and CalEPA claiming the cleanup plan ignores the latest state projections of sea-level rise, CalEPA’s new health-protective protocols for VOCs, and health risks posed by other toxic chemicals remaining on site.
The Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco is another example, as it was designated a Superfund in 1989. Home to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, the surrounding land is contaminated with radioactive and other toxic waste. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored testimony from whistleblowers, who had worked for the federal contractor Tetra Tech EC, Inc., about fraud in the cleanup until community pressure and media attention forced the agencies to conduct retesting. As a result, two Tetra Tech supervisors were found guilty of falsifying records. In addition to ongoing community concerns about the quality of the cleanup, state regulators approved keeping large amounts of radioactive and toxic waste buried along the waterfront, according to Greenaction. Baykeeper and other environmental groups are concerned that without removal of toxic contaminants, including those that are capped, flooding will spread the contaminants into the bay and neighboring communities.
Bayview Hunters Point’s Parcel A, previously part of the Shipyard Superfund site, was incorrectly declared clean of radioactive contamination. The Navy then transferred the parcel to the city and county of San Francisco, which gave it to the multibillion-dollar developer Lennar Corporation. Relying on the certification of government agencies, such as DTSC, and Tetra Tech EC that the parcel was clean, Lennar built hundreds of upscale townhouses. When community pressure forced regulatory agencies to conduct even limited retesting, highly radioactive material was found next to a housing area that had been declared free of contamination for a decade. According to local community groups, regulatory agencies have refused to conduct further testing, and they have never tested under the new homes or the children’s playground.
Finally, Treasure Island was once part of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard complex, and it is also contaminated with radioactive and toxic waste. Although its “hazard ranking score” is double the threshold for Superfund consideration, it was never designated a Superfund site. DTSC is the lead regulatory agency responsible for the cleanup at this site, some of which have been capped. This may soon be of little use, however, as there is a risk of the cap failing due to pressure from rising sea levels.
DTSC has also claimed that it is safe for more than 1,000 low-income people of color and formerly unhoused residents to be living near radioactive waste. At a public hearing held Feb. 8 by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, state regulators told the supervisors that a chain-link fence and warning sign will protect residents from this potentially deadly contamination, according to Greenaction director Bradley Angel.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed DTSC reform legislation SB 158 in July as part of the state budget. It increases the DTSC budget for cleanups and investigations and attempts to bring transparency and accountability to the public by reestablishing an oversight board. However, the oversight board will not be effective unless its members are independent of DTSC, other government agencies, corporations and developers. Most importantly, representatives of environmental justice communities need to be included and heard.
Until we achieve comprehensive legislative reform, immediate action is needed to protect frontline families and children and the environment. See ej-ca.com to join 23 grassroots organizations working for change.