The new year is a make-or-break moment for a Richmond housing development atop a contaminated former waterfront site once owned by the global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
Plans for developing as many as 4,000 units on the site have survived scrutiny by officials and legal challenges from environmental groups; the Richmond City Council approved the development years ago.
But last summer, state regulators asked the company to examine whether future sea level rise pushing up groundwater should alter the cleanup remedies for the hazardous site before development begins.
“The science of sea level rise is progressing, we're listening to the community, and we're saying we want more evaluation,” Ian Utz, project manager for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC, told KQED. "We're going to follow where the science leads us. The sea level rise evaluation is not a one-and-done thing."
Utz also tasked two independent researchers to analyze the company's site-wide sea level rise evaluation. AstraZeneca determined that by the year 2050, the site would incur no negative impacts.
But the two scientists found the company’s conclusions inadequate. Their analysis, which KQED reviewed, shows that rising sea levels could surface buried contaminants and expose future residents to them.
The company-led sea level rise evaluation prepared by consultants found that there will be no negative impacts from rising seas by the year 2050. Still, the developer might have to modify an underground barrier to treat groundwater before it reaches the bay by the end of the century.
UC Berkeley’s Hill and University of Arkansas geosciences professor Kevin Befus, who worked on projects for the U.S. Geological Survey modeling groundwater in the Bay Area, reviewed the evaluation for DTSC.
Hill’s critique of the AstraZeneca study centers on the model the company’s consultants used to examine rising groundwater, which took a profile of the existing water table and raised it as “if it were frozen in shape.”
That’s like a “cartoon version” of how liquid moves, she said. “Groundwater isn't like ice; it's going to leak out to the sides. It won't rise in some areas as much. In others, it may rise a lot.”
The other independent reviewer, Befus, said his main concern is that the company’s report primarily focused on flooding hazards and not on how rising groundwater will affect contamination.
“Groundwater is the conveyor belt for the chemicals,” he said, adding that DTSC should further look at how sea level rise will alter the hydrology under the site. “[The company’s] approach is just not useful for saying which direction chemicals are going to flow. Are they going to flow faster with sea level rise? That's just not how their model was built.”
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