Regulators reject Berkeley plan that would have allowed 'excessively high' radiation at park

BERKELEY CA MAY 6, 2024 - The SF skyline is visible from Cesar Chavez Park, a former dumpsite, on Monday, May 6, 2024 in Berkeley, Calif. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board recently learned that hazardous waste was disposed at Albany and Berkeley's landfills, both of which are now public parks. The waste was disposed of between 1960 and 1979 by a pesticide manufacturer, but DTSC failed to share these disposal records with the Water Board until last year. This waste contains radioactive wastes including uranium and thorium, in addition to the highly toxic pesticide DDT. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)
Berkeley's César Chávez Park was built atop a former municipal landfill. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

Months after discovering that radioactive waste and toxic pesticides may be buried under two popular Bay Area parks, state regulators have rejected Berkeley's plan to test for contaminants as insufficient.

In January, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Board informed the cities of Albany and Berkeley that a former chemical plant had disposed of 11,100 tons of industrial waste at their municipal landfills decades ago. The revelation came after the Department of Toxic Substance Control shared a 1980 document detailing the disposal records of Stauffer Chemical Co.'s Richmond plant.

Berkeley's landfill has since been converted into 90-acre César Chávez Park, while Albany's has evolved into a 40-acre recreational area called the Bulb.

The water board demanded the cities to submit plans by April to scan these areas for cancer-causing gamma radiation and sample for banned pesticides, including DDT.

Albany's plans for the Bulb were approved and testing is expected to begin this month. Berkeley's proposal for César Chávez , however, was denied as the water board cited major concerns with the city's methodology.

Read more: Revelations of possible radioactive dumping around the Bay Area trigger new testing at parks

Berkeley's contractor, SCS Engineers, called for an inspector to walk in long, straight lines across César Chávez with a radioactivity detector. But the plan allowed for spacing up to 100 feet between each walked path, meaning "it would result in a significant portion of the site not being surveyed," according to a May 16 letter from Eileen White, the executive officer of the regional water board.

"A comprehensive surface scan should cover 100 percent of the landfill surface, or as close to that as possible," White said in the letter to SCS Engineers.

SCS Engineers also recommended that the radioactivity measured at César Chávez be compared to Blair Southern Pacific Landfill, a hazardous waste dump in Richmond that accepted Stauffer's waste and is fenced off to prevent public access. The Berkeley-hired firm proposed flagging areas for further evaluation if gamma radiation detectors reach 80,000 counts per minute or higher.

The typical background reading is 60 counts per minute.

The Albany Bulb juts into the San Francisco Bay's shimmering waters
The Albany Bulb will be tested for radioactivity, following regulators' approval of the city's plan. (Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

White, the water board executive, said Berkeley's proposed benchmarks for what warranted further investigation were "excessively high." She argued that if SCS was intent on comparing radiation at César Chávez to background levels, it should find a nearby site that is unaffected by chemical waste.

The water board has given Berkeley until July 1 to submit a new plan.

Berkeley spokesperson Matthai Chakko said the city has complied with all regulatory requirements from the water board. Amending testing plans, he said, is commonly part of the process.

"It is standard practice for regulated entities to submit proposed work plans to regulators for guidance, review, and revision before the plans are ultimately approved," Chakko said.

Read more: Explosive levels of methane have been detected near a Berkeley landfill-turned-park

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.