State agencies face lawsuit over approval of Richmond housing development

RICHMOND — A coalition of community and environmental groups is taking the state to court over its agencies’ approval of the cleanup plan for a mixed-used project with 4,000 homes atop a contaminated waterfront site in Richmond.

The lawsuit filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court argues that the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Environmental Protection Agency violated California law by approving a purchase agreement for the developer without an adequate environmental review.

Developer Shopoff Realty Investments has plans to build 2,000 to 4,000 housing units and up to 50,000 square feet of retail space on the 86-acre site east of Marina Bay and west of Interstate 580 on the southeastern Richmond shoreline. The site was once owned by the Zeneca (now AstraZeneca) pharmaceutical company.

The proposed development and the cleanup plans for the site have long been a source of controversy. The site was a dumping ground for toxic materials for decades as a home to the Stauffer Chemical Company and then AstraZeneca.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control approved a cleanup method for the site that includes removing some contaminated soil, treating the groundwater and poyring concrete over the contaminated areas. The Richmond City Council voted last year to support that method after approving a more thorough soil removal process in 2018.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances issued a statement noting that the department “robustly engaged with the communities surrounding this site during our decision making process with the goal of protecting public health and the environment while minimizing adverse impacts on public health and safety compared to other alternatives.”

In a statement about its decision to approve the method in 2019, the Department of Toxic Substances Control said the more complete soil excavation method would take 10 years and require about 64,370 truck trips to get rid of the material, creating “harmful impacts to the community, including air pollution, dangerous traffic and increased dust.”

The alternative capping method requires about two years and 1,050 truck trips.

But critics — including those who filed the lawsuit — say the current plan won’t go far enough.

“The site is open on the sides and bottom,” said Faris Jessa of Richmond Shoreline Alliance in an email statement. “So a concrete cap won’t prevent the toxics from moving inland with sea-level rise. We don’t want a carcinogenic toxic soup coming up under our homes.”

The groups argue that the cleanup plan approved by Department of Toxic Substances Control in 2019 is insufficient in light of new California guidance about sea-level rise and that the department has ignored a recent state protocol on the risks of volatile organic compounds.

In approving the purchase agreement, the state regulatory agencies “failed to take into account changed circumstances and new information about the cleanup plan,” the new lawsuit alleges, noting that approved cleanup plan “will not only be ineffective in remediating the Zeneca Site, but will, instead, result in spreading toxic materials now located in the soil and groundwater under the Zeneca Site in all directions: up to the surface, into the atmosphere, into any buildings built on the site, into the air and soil surrounding the site, and into the waters of the Bay just south of the site.”

“Building housing on this contaminated site would be an environmental injustice,” said Virginia Reinhart, director of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, which filed the lawsuit along with Mothers Against Toxic Housing, Citizens for East Shore Parks, Richmond Shoreline Alliance, Sunflower Alliance, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling, and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund.

“While Richmond needs more affordable housing, we don’t want to put communities already overburdened by pollution in harm’s way because the responsible agency hasn’t analyzed all the risk factors,” she said.

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