.Toxic Tides: Groups demand action now as seas rise

The sea is already rising, nibbling at vulnerable East Bay communities. Climate scientists warn the so-called “doomsday” glacier may fracture within five years, possibly leading to the collapse of the entire Antarctic ice sheet, potentially resulting in a sea-level rise of several meters—not inches. 

Catastrophic ice-sheet collapse or not, local environmental and community groups are pushing back strongly against city governments and developers who continue advocating for building on threatened land, and the state and federal agencies that, in their view, do far too little to protect threatened communities.

A two-day workshop, in December 2021, brought together environmental organizations, scientists, community activists and government agency officials to discuss sea-level rise and its potential to release decades-long build-up of toxic substances from contaminated sites. The workshop raised a number of controversies.

One day before the workshop commenced, a widely publicized report, called “Toxic Tides,” was released. This report, citing “400 toxic sites” in California that could be vulnerable to sea-level rise and corresponding ocean contamination, was criticized during the workshop for failing to take into account effects of sea-level and groundwater rise intersection.

The East Bay’s many low-lying areas are known to be at risk, something pointed out in a February 2021 KQED/NPR report by Laura Klivens, which stated, “[in these areas] groundwater rising … could start to manifest in 10–15 years, particularly in low-lying communities like Oakland. And that could resurface toxic substances that have lingered for years underground.”

At-risk sites cited in the workshop and following interviews for this story include San Leandro Bay, the Oakland/Alameda Estuary, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany and Alameda—with focus on the former Naval Air Station. That many of the most at-risk areas are disproportionately located in poor communities of color surprises no one aware of these communities’ history of environmental injustice. They include both West and East Oakland, the area surrounding the Oakland Airport, the proposed site of the new A’s stadium and the entire southern Richmond shoreline. 

In a follow-up interview, San Francisco Baykeeper Field Investigator Cole Burchiel said, “The Toxic Tides report did not accurately reflect the hazards posed to these communities. Baykeeper has identified 1,100 contaminated sites on the San Francisco Bay alone. We believe the report will be used to impede progress in remediating toxic sites.”

“We have been looking at this since 2014,” said Ms. Margaret Gordon of the West Oakland Indicators Project. “In West Oakland, 83% of residents live next to a potentially contaminated site.”

The Toxic Tides report was promptly seized on by Richmond’s mayor, Tom Butt, as justification for moving forward with highly controversial development on the Astra-Zeneca site, as it did not list the site as being at high risk of mobilized pollutants contamination.

This elicited a strong rebuke from the report’s researchers, as well as community partner the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, who sent a joint letter to Butt and the Richmond City Council stating in part: “We are writing regarding the e-newsletter that Mayor Butt sent to thousands of Richmond residents on December 1, 2021, in which he inappropriately used screenshots of our preliminary Toxic Tides maps to misguide Richmond residents with false claims that the Campus Bay/Zeneca site is not at risk of flooding from sea level rise, noting that the site was labeled as ‘not at risk’ …”

The letter continues: “However, our maps do not include data on flooding related to projected groundwater intrusion … research conducted by other scientific colleagues on that site indicates that there are significant and immediate risks from toxic groundwater emergence due to sea level rise … . Therefore, it is erroneous and misleading for the Mayor to publicly state that the AstraZeneca site is not at risk of future toxic contamination problems due to sea level rise.”

Kristina Hill, U.C. Berkeley’s program director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development and recipient of a doctorate from Harvard University, has studied groundwater for years. Hill, one of the critics of the Toxic Tides report during the workshop, said in a follow-up interview, “Topography is destiny. [Much of the East Bay is] low-lying area, covered by a 10-foot crust of soil through which water can move, making it vulnerable to groundwater moving vertically.”

“Groundwater is right at the surface in many of these communities,” she said. “Sea-level rise could push groundwater up as far as three miles inland, according to a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey.”

Richmond’s Astra-Zeneca site, the source of community protest and lawsuits for years, is a “poster child” for evaluating additional risks from groundwater rise, Burchiel said. A 2020 lame-duck Richmond City Council voted to move forward on developing the site as mixed-use, including 4,000 housing units, a decision partly based on a California Department of Toxic Substances evaluation recommending only a partial clean-up.

In an e-mail response, DTSC Director Meredith Williams wrote: “At the Astra-Zeneca site, for example, DTSC considered the available science on sea-level rise in our decision. At this time, we have not changed our recommendation on this site, but we will continue to evaluate all relevant data on sea-level rise, and are willing to make changes if the data leads us to do so. We will continue to work with community members and continue to seek public input as we make decisions and move forward.”

But that the best available science was used in that decision is contested by the group of environmental and community groups currently suing to demand a full clean-up.

Part of the group’s complaint states: “The 2019 final [Feasibility Study/Removal Action Plan] was developed using information on sea level rise dating from 2011, which estimated up to 14 inches of sea level rise by the year 2050 and up to 55 inches by the year 2100 … . [But] in January 2020, the State of California released updated guidelines for expected future sea level rise in California. The 2020 guidelines greatly increased the expected rate of sea level rise. Under the new guidelines, sea level would be expected to rise by up to one foot by the year 2030, up to 3.5 feet by 2050, and up to 7.6 feet by the year 2100.”

The Astra-Zeneca site, and others, contain “world-class pollutants,” Hill said. “If we build housing on these sites, the people who live there will never cease to be at risk … we will never be able to remediate.”

Community distrust of the DTSC’s willingness to actively protect residents, as well as local actions of the EPA, was expressed during the workshop by activist participants.

Said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, one of the event’s organizers, “These agencies have commonly been dominated by industry and business interests. It’s the ‘fox guarding the henhouse syndrome.’”

In her email, DTSC’s Williams wrote: “DTSC continues to rely on the best available science as California law requires. We rely on experts in sea level rise, such as the Ocean Protection Council, to ensure that we are up to date. Although each site is evaluated individually, we are developing guidance for all our Project Managers across the state to ensure that we are using a consistent approach to our decisions, based on the most current science, while also requiring the specific measures needed at each individual site.”

But during her interview, Hill stated, “We should be using maps of monitoring wells to determine where contaminant flow is moving. Why aren’t we seeing this from state agencies?”

Baykeeper’s Burchiel said, “The vast majority of sites [identified by the DTSC] need to be re-evaluated to take into account groundwater risk.”

The letter to Mayor Butt and the Richmond City Council states: “Mounting scientific research on sea level rise indicates that Bay Area cities, along with USEPA and the Department of Toxics Substances Control, should move quickly to assess and adequately clean up legacy toxic sites to ensure that future land uses do not jeopardize community environmental health.”

That at-risk communities are tired of hearing “five more years of study is necessary” also became clear during the workshop. West Oakland’s Gordon repeatedly pressed the DTSC’s Site Mitigation & Restoration Program Deputy Director, Grant Cope, and the EPA’s Manager, Superfund Division, California Clean-up Sites, Dana Barton, for concrete answers on when action would be taken.

“The communities want a guarantee that things will be done, a timeline that will be upheld,”  Burchiel said. Julia Dowell, community organizer with Greenaction, and a workshop facilitator, agreed. “Communities want to see tangible change, and are demanding complete clean-ups.”

APEN’s Policy & Research Director, Amee Raval, said, “We are in alignment on that concern. We needed enforcement and remediation years ago. The state has approved “$15 billion for climate resilience” and there are additional Superfund clean-up funds allocated in the federal infrastructure bill.”

In her workshop presentation, Barton said that infrastructure money will be used for clean-up on federal sites. DTSC’s Williams email stated, “DTSC received additional funding this fiscal year to address long-contaminated sites in vulnerable communities impacted by multiple sources of pollution. We’re already working to make the money available for use in those communities, and DTSC will continue to act with urgency and measure to protect people and the environment from toxic harm.”

Said Dowell, “Greenaction and partners will be doing follow-up meetings with government agencies in the next few months about commitments made during the course of the workshop.”

Some cities, communities and groups are taking their own action. In 2020, the City of Alameda employed Silverstrum Climate Associates to research and prepare the study “The Response of the Shallow Groundwater Layer and Contaminants to Sea Level Rise,” and is using it in city planning.

On Dec. 13, 2021, the Sierra Club SF Bay Chapter, along with multiple partners, including Baykeeper, sent a joint letter to the City of Newark Planning Commission voicing concerns regarding the proposed Mowry Village subdivision, located on Newark’s shoreline.

“When sea levels rise, inundation will expose site contaminants that could then leach into the water supply and pose severe public health risks to residents and result in massive disruptions to adjacent ecological uses,” the letter states.

In Atchison Village, a low-lying Richmond community, hydrogeologist James Jacobs is conducting a two-year study of groundwater, using underground sensors to measure where and how groundwater is moving, and how it intersects with storm drains, buried creek channels and sewers. He will also seek signs of contaminants, such as dissolved benzene from the soil and leakage from sewer pipes.

Project scientist Naama Raz-Yaseef is acting as a remote consultant on North Richmond’s The Watershed Project, an innovative “resilience-by-design” plan targeting the 5.5 miles stretching from the Chevron refinery to the West County Wastewater Facility. “Water comes in from all directions here,” Raz-Yaseef said. “Some areas will be inundated in 10 years by storm surges. In 30 years, the wastewater facility will be completely flooded.”

To mitigate this, The Watershed Project is working on creating a “living levee,” using nature-based solutions. “[San Francisco’s] Embarcadero is an engineered solution, requiring constant repairs and maintenance,” Raz-Yaseef said. “A living levee acts as a sponge to soak up water and mitigate wave energy, in addition to cleaning the water before it flows back into the Bay.”

Initial plans are scheduled for September 2022 release, but the project itself may take 10 years to build. Raz-Yaseef sees this as a positive, as it has created—and will create—jobs. For more information, visit thewatershedproject.org.

There are things “citizen scientists” can do to document sea-level and groundwater rise and demand action, interviewees agreed. Voters should contact their state and federal representatives to insist on immediate action. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set a new direction,” Hill said.

Greenaction’s Dowell suggested submitting pictures of flooding, storm surges and other evidence of rising waters to greenaction.org, aiding in creating a “story map” of what community members are seeing.

And, Adapting to Rising Tides recently released its Bay Area report, enabling people to become knowledgeable about their areas, as well as potentially designing their own mitigation projects. The report is available at: www.adaptingtorisingtides.org/project/art-bay-area.

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