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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The Coastal Commission was created in the 1970s after the people of California became so concerned about losing their world-famous coast to unchecked development that they passed a ballot initiative to create the agency. What many people don’t know is that the Coastal Act of 1976 also protected affordable housing. That’s right. The original law afforded as much protection for moderate- and lower-income housing as it now does for wetlands, habitat and scenic views. In the first five years of the program, the commission successfully required the construction of over 5,000 affordable, deed-restricted, owner-occupancy and rental units in high-priced areas such as Laguna Nigel, San Clemente and Dana Point. It also collected about $2 million in in-lieu fees for additional housing opportunities throughout the state. These units were built right alongside the market rate units in most instances, outwardly indistinguishable from the full-price versions.
So what happened?
Local governments objected to the lost property tax revenues. Realtors resented their diminished commissions. So in 1981, a coalition of anti-housing interests got behind a bill by state Sen. Henry Mello that stripped the housing polices out of the Coastal Act. It also allowed any developer who had not yet completed a coastal housing project to demand the commission remove the affordable requirements from the permit. And it prohibited the commission from requiring local governments to include affordable housing in their Local Coastal Plans. Affordable housing ground to a halt in the coastal zone, and thousands of units slated to break ground never materialized.

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The California Coastal Commission's King Tide Photo Project website features photos from the Humboldt Bay area and across the state. This interactive map allows you to zoom in on areas of interest. 

Anyone can upload photos online or via a smartphone app. Click HERE to upload yours.

Embattled longtime Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Alan Bongio, who was censured by the Board of Supervisors in September for comments widely construed as racist and biased while chairing a meeting in August, has stepped down.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who appointed Bongio to the commission and said in September he would not remove him from the post despite mounting pressure to do so, has indicated he intends to appoint Ivar Skavdal to the position.
Last month, voters soundly ousted Bongio from the seat on the Humboldt Community Services District Board of Directors he'd held for 24 years, having taken it over from his father, Aldo Bongio, who held it for 34 years. 
Skavdal, a seventh-generation Humboldt County resident, is a registered civil engineer who attended Humboldt State and Chico State universities and resides in Ferndale. Formerly the CEO of Winzler & Kelly Civil Engineering and president of GHD, Skavdal recently retired and "would like to give back to the community that gave him his start," according to Bohn.
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The National Weather Service in Eureka issued a coastal flood warning on Thursday in anticipation of anomalous high tides that hit early Friday. While there were few issues caused by the flooding, the king tides offer a preview of what future sea level rise could mean for Eureka and the rest of Humboldt Bay.
“This is about one foot higher than a typical high tide,” said Jennifer Kalt, director of the nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper. “With one foot of sea level rise, what we saw today will be the average monthly high tide.”
In fact, the astronomical tide event was even higher than expected as it reached a peak of 9.28 feet in the North Spit. But other fortunate weather factors helped mitigate any risk of damage from flooding.
Only within the past decade are geologists realizing that the area around Humboldt Bay is sinking due to tectonic subsidence. The average sinking is at nearly the same rate that sea levels are rising, compounding the effect and doubling the relative sea level rise. In contrast, Crescent City appears to be on a tectonic uplift that would minimize the effects of rising sea levels. And for better and for worse, the science at the core if this issue is still fairly new; the theory of plate tectonics only came to be understood in the past 75 years.
“A lot of this science is advancing,” said Kalt. “10 years ago, no one knew that the Humboldt Bay area was sinking so rapidly due to tectonic subsidence.”
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