Park News 7/3/24

That Radiation Bogeyman Again

Fear sells papers and boosts clicks. How else to explain Wednesday’s Berkeleyside lead story asserting as fact that radioactive material was dumped here, when there is not the slightest credible evidence that this is true.

Berkeleyside’s reporter Iris Kwok should know better, and maybe she does, but the editors went with the fear angle. In the caption to Phil Rowntree’s excellent drone photo of the park, Berkeleyside says “regulators last year discovered waste records indicating Stauffer Chemical Company decades ago disposed of radioactive waste and pesticides there.”

Five paragraphs into the Berkeleyside story comes this:

The proposed testing comes over a year after the water board first received records from the Department of Toxic Substances indicating Stauffer Chemical Company disposed of hazardous radioactive waste and pesticides — including now-banned DDT and dieldrin — from 1960 to 1971 at the municipal dump beneath what’s now Cesar Chavez Park.

In actual fact, as readers of this blog will know, the Stauffer records, created in 1980 and now publicly available, deny disposing of any radioactive material in the Berkeley dump, and equally deny dumping any organic pesticides such as DDT. What Stauffer’s records admit is dumping unspecified amounts of “alum mud,” a waste product from processing bauxite ore to extract alumina compounds. While bauxite ore may contain radioactive matter, the amounts and levels of radioactivity vary greatly with the source. The State Department of Toxic Substances Control assumed that Stauffer’s alum mud showed elevated levels of radioactivity. But its actual measurements taken at the Blair dump in Richmond, where Stauffer also dumped alum mud, showed such low levels of radioactivity that, in the DTSC’s words, they could not tell whether it was anything more than natural background radiation. In the DTSC’s cover letter to the Water Board:

The levels of radioactivity present in the Blair Landfill wastes are low enough that it is uncertain as to whether the results detected are from natural background levels or waste disposal.

This means there is zero positive evidence that radioactive waste was actually dumped into the Berkeley landfill (now our park). The most that can be said is that the waste dumped here, if it is the same as the waste dumped at Blair, has such a low level of radioactivity that we cannot with certainty distinguish it from normal background.

Note that the DTSC had been in possession of Stauffer’s dumping report since 1980, but chose to sit on it for 44 years before releasing it. One slant on this is that DTSC are incompetent and heads should roll. Another explanation is that the Stauffer report contained nothing but routine disclosures, one episode among many of corporate dumping of industrial wastes. Absent a positive finding of extraordinary radioactivity, the Stauffer papers did not ring special alarm bells.

Moving with its usual gastropodian speed, the SCS Engineering management has now talked to a pair of UC Berkeley and Berkeley Rad Lab professors as consultants to devise a drone scan of the park’s surface, according to the Berkeleyside piece. That’s a sensible idea, although it’s a bit odd that SCS proposes use of the roentgen as radiation measurement unit; this unit has largely been abandoned. SCS will mount a Geiger counter on a drone and program the drone to fly a tight pattern back and forth over the park at a height of about ten feet above the ground. Their device has about the same sensitivity (converted to the more modern unit, milli-rem) as the GMC-800 that I used in a walking sweep of park trails and gathering spots two weeks ago. I will confidently venture a prediction that the drone scan will turn up no radioactivity above normal background.

Once that’s done, maybe editors here and in LA will finally drop the fear-mongering approach that creates anxiety among park visitors whether it’s safe to come here. Well, there are dangers in the park, uneven pavement, rutted trails, sometimes fallen branches, and the like. They’re all familiar, homey, natural kinds of risks.

Park Volunteer Day Sunday July 7

We will be doing a stewardship at the Chavez Park Native Plant Area Sunday, July 7 at 9 am. Can you give us a hand?

This hot weather is especially hard on the plants we installed last November. They had been grown in a nursery with regular watering before we put them in the ground, and the winter rains really helped them establish themselves, but some have not yet grown roots enough to survive this first summer without some more water. Also, there are a few areas where the weeds still need to be cleared away from the plants.

We will be starting at 9:00 at the parking circle at the bayside west end of Spinnaker Way and expect to work until lunchtime. We have enough gloves and some tools for you but as the soil is drying it is hardening so bring any digging tools like small shovels or mattocks if you have them.

Hope to see you there!
Bob Huttar, Volunteer Coordinator

An Appeal to Save the Waterfront

Camille Antinori, a long time friend of the (former) Berkeley fishing pier and a keen observer of political development affecting the pier and other parts of the south side of the waterfront, has started a petition to Save the Waterfront. She writes:

Dear Petitioners: 

It has been a while since we last sent an update and a lot is happening, including an event at the Berkeley waterfront this Sunday (see below)! Fall elections, a new city manager and ongoing commission and city council meetings continue to shape our waterfront.  City staff are quietly pushing waterfront and ferry planning forward at the expense of affordable access to public open space and recreational activities for all.

For example:

  • In May, Berkeley City Council and staff reallocated $1.7m of funds earmarked for badly-needed waterfront infrastructure improvements to an engineering firm to design WETA’s ferry/pier terminal, a project which has not yet been approved by the public. 
  • Last July, the Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW) found that – unlike other marina funds in California – only 45% of Berkeley’s Marina Fund operating expenses are for boating-related activities for which the fund was intended.  Instead of restructuring Berkeley’s Marina Fund per DBW’s loan conditions, the city decided to reject the loan and pay internally for dock improvements with its worker’s compensation fund (see Item 19).
  • Since April, city staff have pursued policies that would hobble a long-standing nonprofit community-based organization, Cal Sailing Club, for dubious revenue enhancements. Please read their petition here!  In a “let-them-eat-cake moment” during a meeting, one parks commissioner even asked that at least 300 of Cal Sailing Club’s members – many of whom volunteer their time to keep the club affordable for all, including themselves – go buy their own private boats and rent berths in the marina!  Clearly, some decisionmakers in the city have no idea of the diverse socioeconomic community the waterfront hosts and the meaning of affordable access. 

Is this supporting a sane, consistent, long-term plan that recognizes the area as a rich natural environment, providing bird, plant, and marine habitat, plus coastline protection, a favorite regional fishing spot, and affordable access to the coastline? 

And we have found some answers to some questions.

Like Berkeley’s financial liability for a ferry project:  While the ferry agency, WETA, is touted as Berkeley’s waterfront savior, WETA’s business plans depend on Berkeley subsidizing about half of its annual operating expenses through dedicated sales or property taxes or other funding from the City of Berkeley.  In contrast, the small ferries currently operating out of the marina pay the city to operate.  WETA would only build out a pier to their terminal, about 400-500 feet, plus possibly a breakwater.  There are no estimates of “secondary benefits” from, say, WETA ferry patrons buying a beer or coffee at the marina, and some consultants guesstimate that those benefits would be low.

And what about parking?  Should WETA’s plan go forward, about 400 ferry patrons are projected to need parking (p18), even with incentives offered by the city to use non-car travel.  This estimate could go over 1000, depending on which model projections you use.  


We need to educate city policymakers on the issues because many of them don’t even know the details and implications for Berkeley.   Let them know what you want to preserve at the waterfront!

Here’s what you can do:  

  • Come to Save the Waterfront event this Sunday, July 7 at 10:30 am near the roundabout at Cesar Chavez Park on Spinnaker Way.  The problems are so big, across all aspects of planning, that one mayoral candidate is holding an event just to focus on these issues. 
  • 2. The city has a parking survey to figure out how it would accommodate ferry patrons.  Will waterfront visitors have to pay for parking to allow ferry patrons to park free?  Fill out the city’s ferry parking survey and make comments here

3. As always, your councilmembers need to hear from you personally and individually.  Press them for better financial management of the marina, more transparency on Berkeley’s cost liabilities, and a holistic vision of the waterfront that doesn’t throw away what already works.  Support Berkeley’s “jewel of the bay” and its diverse, open access opportunities to the coastline rather than exclusive redevelopment choices designed around a commercial transportation hub idea. 

City Council emails:

The petition is at this link.

Gull Babies Growing

Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis)

The Western Gull chicks out on the breakwater on the west side of the park are surviving and thriving, despite the challenging neighborhood. The video above features the one survivor of the pair that originally hatched on the far west end of the concrete wall. Two grown up gulls are caring for it. The neighboring clutch of three chicks, that hatched a few days later and are a bit smaller, all survived so far, although two of them seem stronger and more likely to survive than the third. One of their parents (I can’t tell mom from dad) did an odd thing. It picked up a bit of dry grass from the remnants of their nest and pretended to feed this to the chicks. Herbal supplement? We’ll see. Meanwhile, a few steps inland, a gull continues to sit on a nest, with a partner standing nearby. Nothing seems to be happening there. I will keep watch.

Pelicans Plunging

Park visitor Feleciana texted me several pictures of dozens of Brown Pelicans in the water on the south side of University Avenue. There may have been as many as a hundred of them. Within a few hours, though, they moved on to parts unknown. Wednesday morning I caught seven of them plunge-diving in the North Basin, see the video above. They were a bit too far away for me to catch details of their work but I got the impression that they were not catching much. When they catch a fish they usually push their head down underwater for a few moments, probably to squeeze water out of their beak, and then jerk their heads up to swallow the fish. I did not see that kind of action. After half an hour or so of trying different spots, the flock moved on northward out of my view.

House Finch Concern

A number of House Finches, both males and females, are spending the summer in the park. This morning I saw half a dozen flitting around a Lemonadeberry tree in the Native Plant Area. They seemed OK, except for one male, who had one good eye and the other eye shut and encrusted. I’m not a veterinarian but this looks like conjunctivitis, caused by a bacterium, Mycoplas­ma gallisepticum. Here’s what I saw; it’s not pleasant, so be warned.

This is a well-known disease with extended literature; see for example, this coverage in the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website. If this is an isolated case, there’s not much that can be done. But we should be alert for other cases, and if this disease has spread, then we should look to bird organizations such as the local Golden Gate Bird Alliance for advice on managing feeders and birdbaths. The disease spreads through contact.

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One thought on “Park News 7/3/24

  • It is shameful that Berkeleyside chose to publish an article that could cause needless fears of radiation with the potential to create wide but unfounded negative ripple effects. Thank you for this balanced and well researched article.

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