Park Week 5/17/2024

Today’s blog instalment has a lot more words than birds. Can’t be helped. Park issues are hot right now. When things settle down, the word/bird ratio will improve.

Nuclear Waste Buried Here?

Excavation this week of a landfill gas extraction well in the Protected Natural Area on the north side of the park. Excavation is four feet deep.

Engineers and construction crews have continued digging up the headers of landfill gas extraction wells in the park this week. The work involves exposing the top of the well shafts with their control valves. The backhoe operator and his laborer typically have to dig down four to eight feet.

If recent stories of radioactive wastes buried here turn out to be accurate, the crew might have to excavate a much bigger cavity.

As I reported here on May 3, the state agency charged with tracking toxic materials recently released a 1980 letter from the Stauffer Chemical Company reporting that between 1960 and 1971, Stauffer dumped some 11,000 tons of hazardous waste in the then Berkeley landfill. On May 14, the Los Angeles Times picked up the story, and painted in some of the sordid background of Stauffer’s piggish operation and the decades-long unfinished efforts of Richmond residents to restore the heavily contaminated Richmond site.

Tony Briscoe, the Times’ reporter, also noted the unexplained delay in releasing the 1980 Stauffer letter. The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) apparently sat on this letter for 44 years. It chose the moment when the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) ruled that Berkeley must rework its landfill gas collection system, to drop this bombshell, adding another layer of uncertainty and expense to Berkeley’s burden. DTSC has some questions to answer.

The DTSC memo focuses on “alum mud,” a byproduct of refining bauxite ore, the source of aluminum. Stauffer was not making aluminum. That’s a process requiring a much larger and more complex operation. An EPA list of US aluminum refiners in the postwar period does not show any such facilities in California. Stauffer was making aluminum sulfate, a liquid or powdery chemical with many uses. Stauffer probably sold it as a soil amendment (it turns hydrangeas blue) or as an inorganic bug killer, or perhaps for use in water treatment. Stauffer discarded the unwanted other components of bauxite ore as a red slurry known as alum mud or red mud. Historical maps of the Richmond site show several places where lagoons of red mud existed while Stauffer operated.

Ponds holding red mud at Stauffer site, 1977 (Richmond Shoreline Alliance photo archive)

The DTSC memo pins the radioactivity danger to this alum mud. “Typically,” it said, bauxite ore contains trace amounts of naturally occurring radioactive metals such as uranium, thorium, and radium. Because the mud has less volume than the ore, the radioactive elements will occupy a higher percentage of the mud than of the raw bauxite. The EPA therefore classifies them as “TENORM,” or Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Matter.

But there are issues. There is no “typical” bauxite. The radionuclide content of bauxite ores varies widely, and may be absent entirely. In a 500+ page treatise on bauxite processing, the EPA lists no radioactive elements. And where the elements are present, the level of radiation is not quantified. To what extent does bauxite-related radioactivity exceed normal background radiation? EPA expresses concern that this radiation might present a health hazard in certain situations, but without stating quantities. It concluded, bottom line, that radiation from bauxite refinery wastes does not require monitoring or regulation. In some countries in the EU, building materials made with red mud can be used in residential construction.

If the radiation danger is limited to alum mud, chances are that radiation emanating from Stauffer’s dumping here will be very weak, and may not be detected above background. The dumping took place in the first decade of the Berkeley landfill’s operation, when fill went into pits in the south edge of the park. Most of that site is now covered by hills containing up to 60 feet of clean soil. And if trace amounts are found, it’s doubtful that the levels will be high enough to trigger requirements for remediation.

But Stauffer handled much more potent radioactive materials than bauxite ore. The DTSC and the LA Times missed a much more worrisome story that local Richmond activists dug up years ago.

Cover letter of Stauffer application to Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1962

In March 1962, Stauffer applied to the Atomic Energy Commission for a source materials license to handle uranium metal for the purpose of refining it by melting it using a new electron-beam process. The process required solid pieces of uranium metal and could not use small fragments or “machine turnings and saw chips.” These “will be stored under oil in steel drums of 5 gal. to 30 gal. capacity.” Every three weeks, “disposal of saw chips and turnings will be performed by a local licensed radioactive waste disposal company.” After the main melting process, the equipment will be cleaned, and “All chips, cleaning solvents, wiping papers and rags will be put in metal drums and disposed of through the contracted services of a licensed disposal company.”

The paper doesn’t identify the disposal company, and no such vendor has surfaced in the extensive commentary on Stauffer’s operations.

Stauffer is generally seen as a company that made industrial chemicals and pesticides. The 1962 letter to the AEC indicates that its interests were far broader. The head of Stauffer’s Research and Development Department, Jack K. Y. Hum, previously worked at the UC Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, at the Oak Ridge Laboratory, and in the Army’s Chemical Warfare Services Development Laboratory. “His past efforts include extensive experience with all refractory metals and several of the more exotic metals of interest in the AEC weapons program at the Radiation Laboratory.” He “has conducted extensive research on materials of chemical warfare.” Stauffer’s Principal Metallurgist, John M. Fitzpatrick, worked for 11 years for Nuclear Metals, Inc., and “has particular experience in the metallurgy and fabrication of the materials used in the atomic energy industry.”

The AEC granted Stauffer’s application on May 21, 1962, doubling the requested allowance from 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of uranium. As the letter mentions, Stauffer had already gone into production melting uranium ingots. As a 1963 paper by H. M. Eikenberry reports, Stauffer’s electron beam furnace in its Beryllium laboratory at Richmond was used by the National Lead Company of Ohio under contract with the Army’s National Logistics Coordination Office to refine uranium into ingots having a higher purity. As early as 1956, Stauffer had melted approximately 700 lbs of solid uranium metal. A 1990 research study cites a 1961 report indicating that all contaminated material up to that time, including material contaminated with beryllium, “was sent to a Stauffer subcontractor for sea disposal.” The report concludes that “Specifics of the decontamination effort is unknown.”

Stauffer’s 1980 letter does not admit to disposing of radioactive wastes at Berkeley or any of Stauffer’s other disposal sites. But, as the EPA noted in its Report to Congress in 2000, “relatively few  landfills or other licensed disposal locations can accept radioactive waste. However, TENORM materials exempt from NRC regulation are routinely disposed of without being labeled ‘radioactive material’.” The same could credibly be said for scraps of radioactive metals definitely not exempt from NRC regulation, such as uranium.

If there are drums of uranium scraps buried under Chavez Park, chances are that modern radiation detectors will find them, even under 60 feet of dirt. The City is now under intense pressure to conduct a radiation sweep, and has said that it will do so, but has released no details. If uranium is detected, we’ll see a royal debate about what to do with it. That backhoe now scraping the soil off the top of gas extraction wells may end up having to dig a much deeper cavity.

Update: This story was updated on May 28 to add that the AEC granted Stauffer’s 1962 application to handle uranium, and to provide links to both sides of the correspondence. Additional data on Stauffer’s handling of uranium metal prior to 1962 has also been added.

Trail and Restroom Meeting Thursday

As mentioned here twice previously, the City’s Parks department has called a Zoom meeting next Thursday May 23 at 5 pm. to get input on its plans to upgrade the paved perimeter trail and to build one restroom in the park. The City has now published a link to register for this Zoom gathering. Both the trail and the restroom projects are to be handled in the same meeting.

(1) Renovation of the perimeter pathway. This is the city website for that issue. The trail hasn’t had anything more than a post-construction patch on the east side for 30 years. What material is being considered for pavement? Will the side trails for runners be preserved/improved? (Note that the city website still refers to the trail as named after “Dorothy Stegmann,” when checking the historic marker at either end of the trail shows that this energetic disability activist was Olivia Stegman.) And what about the interior pathways? Many of them could use maintenance and upgrading.

(2) Public restroom construction. This is the city website on that issue. The website reveals a city that’s clueless about park visitors’ comfort needs. One single restroom in a park of 90 acres? No movement on the other porta-potties? I started a petition for permanent restrooms in the park in January 2015 and took nearly a thousand signatures to City Council in March that year. Council response was a collective nod, yeah that’s awful we need to fix it. Nothing happened. Five years ago the city hired a consultant to study the public restroom situation. They recommended permanent restrooms, plural, in the park. That was ignored. The Parks department has demonstrated for years that it is content with the porta-potties and doesn’t see how park visitors deserve any better. Several park visitors have opined that somebody in city management must be getting a kickback from the porta-potty company. The city’s website now says that its restroom project is in the “pre-design and investigation phase,” meaning that nothing has been done and there are no specific plans. The proviso that construction “is anticipated to start in 2025” means nothing. The existence of porta-potties in a Berkeley park for more than 25 years is a scandal. It demonstrates city management’s contempt for the visitors who come from all over the region and from many countries to visit the city and its attractions. Building park restrooms is not rocket science, and vendors exist that can do it very economically. Let’s see if the upcoming departure of the current city manager leads to progress for decency in the park.

The city’s websites about the May 23 meeting don’t provide a slot for submitting written comments in advance of the meeting. The best that’s offered is to email questions to parks@cityofberkeley.info, a black hole for incoming messages.

Problems for Pelicans

Brown Pelican seen in North Basin on Thursday this week seemed in good condition

A troubling ailment has been hitting Brown Pelicans on parts of the California coast this past two weeks, reports the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Wildlife rehabilitation facilities as far south as San Diego have been admitting high numbers of sick pelicans. The birds show signs of emaciation (starvation) and some have injuries. The WildCare rehabilitation center in San Rafael reports numerous pelicans coming in, and is working hard to warm them up, feed them digestible soft food, and get them back into normal condition.

Local birdwatchers have reported pelicans with strange behaviors, such as settling unusually close to humans or foraging inland far from shore. Their suffering makes them lethargic, and may also drive them to seek food far from the water. To date, observers have not established whether there is a lack of fish in the water, or whether a disease such as a virus may be preventing the birds from feeding.

In the park, I saw a Brown Pelican squatting unusually close to people on May 3, but the same bird, or one that looked very much like it, was soon actively plunge diving and catching fish, see blog post of May 10. I saw a pair and then a trio of these birds hunting this past week east, north and west of the park, with success. Readers who spot birds in distress should contact WildCare and follow their detailed instructions.

Tackling the Weed Superbloom

Helen Canin, Becca Todd, Bob Huttar, Carlene Chang, Marty Nicolaus working in part of the Native Pollinator Habitat. Jutta Burger photo.

A valiant crew of volunteers turned out last Saturday May 11 to go mano a mano with the monster-sized weeds that our unusually rainy spring has spawned.

Cal Volunteers Tiffany Cruz, Elizabeth Bell, and Helena Meier with Chavez Park Conservancy Board Chair Jutta Burger

Chavez Park Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar led the work, which mainly involved clearing weeds and adding fresh mulch around native pollinator plants put in the ground last fall or a year earlier. The native pollinator project includes some 200 plants spread over six distinct patches of land in the Native Plant Area. Volunteers also trimmed dead branches of trees blocking upcoming young plants.

Part of the weeding merely gave the new plants breathing room. Volunteers also used battery operated string trimmers to clear tall weeds that blocked visibility. The public can’t appreciate the new natives if they can’t see them.

The volunteer team included Elizabeth Bell, Jutta Burger, Helen Canin, Carlene Chang, Clyde Crosswhite, Tiffany Cruz, Helena Meier, Marty Nicolaus, Becca Todd, and Dave Wilson. Elizabeth, Tiffany, and Helena are Cal students who found the Conservancy at our booth at the recent Bay Fair.

Although a lot got done, we were unable to tackle most of the giant Poison Hemlock, Bull Thistle, Wild Mustard, Wild Radish, and Fennel weeds in parts of the Native Plant Area not directly impacting the new pollinator plants. Some of these plants have grown taller than a man and their stems are too thick for a string trimmer or hedge clipper. We’ll have to come back better armed. Meanwhile, park visitors should be cautious about the lethal Poison Hemlock. Don’t confuse it with decorative and healthful Yarrow or with Cow Parsnip. Leave it alone.

Finally, Some Birds

On Wednesday, I spotted a sizeable flock of big grebes far out on the North Basin, too far to get good pictures or IDs. There may have been three dozen of them, or more. On Thursday some of them ventured closer to the shore of the park, and I was able to see that they were a mixed flock, including both Clark’s Grebes and Western Grebes. I could not get an estimate of relative numbers. None of the birds showed courtship behavior.

It was a week for pairs, or maybe that was just me. I saw a beautiful pair of Mallards very close to the east shore of the park, and the next day a pair of Ruddy Ducks. The Ruddies struck me as a bit unusual for this time of year, but seemed perfectly at ease, diving now and then for sustenance.

The big bird news of the week for me was spotting a female Red-winged Blackbird. Males and females travel separately. Males arrive at prospective breeding grounds first, sometimes a month or two early. Females stay away until conditions are ripe for nest building. When the females arrive, the fun begins, and in a good year the northwest quadrant of the park, where the Fennel grows tall, turns to bedlam. In the past few years, unfortunately, a damper has fallen on the scene. Very few females have come. Last year I speculated that the stunted growth of the Fennel kept them away, as it was too short to support nests. This year, however, the Fennel has recovered and seems ample for the purpose, but still the female I saw this week was the only one, so far. Impossible to know whether there is a cycle of some kind at work, or whether the red-wing population is diminished, or whether the site is no longer attractive. We can only wait and see.

In other sightings, I was happy to see a Lesser Goldfinch in the Native Plant Area, and got to see it fairly close up. I again saw the Song Sparrow on the north side that I recorded a week ago, but conditions were wrong for getting a good image.

A Few Blooms

Perspective

Photographer Phil Rowntree‘s work has appeared several times in these pages. His latest work comes via a remote controlled airborne camera, aka drone. Here are some views of the park, the Marina, and the Berkeley Meadow (Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park).

Cesar Chavez Park seen from the northeast
Berkeley Marina. Phil Rowntree photo.

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2 thoughts on “Park Week 5/17/2024

  • Public restrooms, Berkeley Marina?
    And if a new one is built?
    Who cleans such?
    How often?
    Are there mid-day cleanings on hot, crowded Summer time days?
    Outside janitor contractor?
    Does City go with lowest bids?
    The lower the bid, the lower the thoroughness.
    Safety and security.
    How often does Berkeley P.D. actually patrol Marina?

  • An excellent report. Thank you, Marty Nicolaus. Some people and organizations seem to be severely lacking in scruples. What a disastrous situation!
    Nice account of volunteer work in the park. And lovely photos by all who shared them. I hope the Brown Pelican health situation improves soon.

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