Park Week 5/3/2024

Gas Meeting at the Yacht Club

The City’s Public Works Department held an informational meeting about landfill gas under Chavez Park on Thursday May 2 at 1 pm at the Yacht Club. Despite the esoteric hour and location, about 20 people attended. Mary Skramstad, the City’s Environmental Compliance Officer, and Wahid Amiri, Deputy Director of the Public Works Department, gave a presentation and answered questions.

The main takeaway was that excavation on all 42 of the landfill gas extraction wells in the system was going to start Monday May 6. For the wells in the park, this meant digging a hole that could be six feet square, or more, and two or three feet deep, in order to expose and then replace the headers atop the extraction well pipes, and to lay a base of bentonite, a clay sealant. This excavation work, Amiri pointed out, was very similar to what was done in the park in 2015-2017, except that this time, updated valves and measuring devices will be installed in the headers. Skramstad indicated that they intended to complete two or three wells each day. Each excavation site would be fenced as the work took place. No larger restrictions on visitor movement in the park would be required.

The presenters made no mention of later steps that may be required. The Order of Abatement issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) in February makes it clear that long distances of buried horizontal feeder pipes may also have to be replaced, which will require extensive trenching. Skramstad indicated that the schedule of work, and work accomplished, along with other information, would be posted promptly on the City’s capital projects website. As of May 2, however, this website contained no information about the landfill gas rework project.

During the question period, Claudia Kawczynska, current chair of the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission, opined that Ground Squirrels were to blame for problems in the landfill gas system, and asked what was being done about them. Several other meeting participants spoke in defense of the squirrels. Skramstad said that a biologist had been hired to look into the Ground Squirrels and would have a report, but that elimination of Ground Squirrels was not an option being looked at.

Wahid Amiri and Mary Skramstad, presenters

A few days earlier, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley published a memo to City Council about the gas issue; a copy is online here. She outlined the history of the landfill and of relations between the City, the SCS Engineering firm that manages the landfill for the City, and the three concerned regulatory agencies. This discussion is superficial, but accurate as far as it goes. Williams-Ridley rightly emphasized that “Cesar Chavez Park continues to be a thriving, safe area … [and] there are no additional limits that need to be placed on activity in the park.” She also correctly underlined that regular measurements of potential surface emissions of methane are made and the levels are “consistently far below the regulatory maximums,” indicating that the area is “secure from health or safety threats.” This is familiar territory. Both Amiri and Skramstad made the same point at the Thursday meeting.

The memo gets interesting when Williams-Ridley discloses that the recent BAAQMD hearing (see “BAAQMD Beats Up on Berkeley,” Feb 7 2024 and the posts preceding it) was initiated by City staff without consultation or approval by the City Attorney’s office (Memo p. 4). It looks like City management is segregated into silos, where one office doesn’t know what another is doing. Williams-Ridley says on p. 2 that a series of steps has been undertaken, including hiring new consultants, new staff, and creating new procedures, to get the City’s act together in this area. Meanwhile, the City is starting “an ongoing process of trenching and repair work” to comply with BAAQMD’s recent order. Better management might have avoided having to do that in the first place.

One of the new regulatory mandates is to do a “gas speciation assessment” (aka “fingerprinting”) of the park gas and the gas found under the Hilton hotel across Spinnaker Way. BAAQMD thinks that if gas at the two locations has the same chemical signature, it will prove that park gas has migrated underground to the hotel, potentially giving BAAQMD jurisdiction over the hotel grounds, which lie outside the official bounds of the Berkeley landfill. Williams-Ridley breaks new ground for the city here by pointing out, as I and others have reported in the past, that the hotel also sits on garbage. She writes, “There are indications that refuse exists below the hotel from possible illegal dumping that was combined with fill soil when the hotel was constructed” (Memo p. 4). Amiri at the Thursday meeting confirmed this finding. This should be no surprise as basically the whole land of the Waterfront, with the partial exception of the Brickyard, was created by garbage dumping, long before BAAQMD was born and without any official “landfill” label attached. With this memo, the City officially dumps the pretense of its million-dollar consultants who could see no garbage anywhere in the waterfront but in Chavez Park; see “Comments on Berkeley Waterfront Specific Plan, Third Draft,” Nov. 24 2023, paragraph 1.3.

A sleeper item in the memo is a letter from the regional Water Board demanding that the City do testing of the buried waste under the park to determine the presence of toxic industrial waste, including radioactive materials. The Stauffer Chemical Co. at its notorious Zeneca plant in Richmond dumped hazardous industrial wastes at five different landfills, including Berkeley. Its waste included a sludge called “alum mud.” According to the Water Board, alum mud “typically” contains radionuclides naturally present in bauxite, the raw ore of aluminum. Some of these radionuclides were found at the Blair dump, one of the sites where Stauffer and others dumped industrial waste. The Water Board does not know whether these elements came from Stauffer or other dumpers at Blair. In 1980, Stauffer reported that it dumped 11,100 tons of “mixed industrial waste” at the Berkeley site between 1960 and 1971, or an average of a thousand tons per year. Specifically, Stauffer said it dumped heavy metals here, such as iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, cadmium, copper, trivalent chromium, and lead, as well as inorganic salts and asbestos. Stauffer denied dumping at Berkeley any pesticides, insecticides, or other organics, as well as any radioactive residues, and its analysis of “alum mud” included no radionuclides. The Water Board notes in its letter that the City does not need to test for metals because these have already been tracked regularly over the decades and are at minimal levels. That leaves the possible radionuclides, if they exist. The Water district does not spell out how the City is supposed to test for them, or what it’s supposed to do if any are found. An estimated 1.5 million tons of garbage lie under the park. Even if hypothetically all 11,100 tons of Stauffer waste were radioactive, this would amount to less than one percent, buried more than 50 years ago. At the Thursday meeting, Skramstad indicated that the location of the alum mud was unknown. Good luck finding that needle in the waste stack, if it’s there at all. But the Water Board has the power to make the City jump through this hoop, at an estimated cost of $100,000 – $200,000, and it will. Everyone involved will ignore the plain text of Section 13267 of the California Water Code which fixes liability on any person who discharges, or has discharged, hazardous wastes. That “person” is Stauffer Chemical or its successors. Berkeley is not the perpetrator of this violation, it is the victim. It’s Stauffer, not Berkeley, that needs to pay the cost of this testing program. But I am crying in the wilderness.

Berkeley High Students at the Solar Calendar

From the May 27 issue of the Berkeley Times, shared by Tribute Site founder and curator Santiago Casal.

Fun at the Bay Fair

Young man stretches to apply name label to photo of Burrowing Owl, part of the Animal Game. Conservancy volunteer Virginia Browning at the table.

The annual Bay Fair at the Berkeley Waterfront drew hundreds of people on Saturday April 27, and the Chavez Park Conservancy was there again, as in previous years. Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar was present, helped set up, and recruited no fewer than five new volunteers for stewardship work at the Native Plant Area. Conservancy volunteer Virginia Browning, a veteran of last year’s campaign to save the park from commercialization, worked the table and engaged with fair visitors. Dozens of people of all ages stopped to play the “Animal Game,” pinning labels with species names on the correct photo. Each winner, and they were all winners, got a copy of the Conservancy brochure, “Welcome to Chavez Park,” which has artist Bill Reynolds’ beautiful drawing of birds and other creatures as its centerfold. As in past years, many kids too young to read the labels could immediately, when the label was read to them, pin it on the correct photo. Knowledge of animals came before knowledge of letters. A number of adults, seeing the variety of creatures in the photos, were pleasantly surprised to learn that all could be found at the park located just a few minutes north of the fair site. — We owe a debt to Sandy of the Dragon Boat tent next door to our spot, who lent us a pop-up tent when she saw that our DIY PVC construct had a missing part. Thank you, Sandy! Next year we will have a pop-up of our own.

Song is its Name

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

It’s the time of year when the thoughts of birds and many other creatures turn to pairing up and reproducing. This Song Sparrow was in that flow, perching on an old Fennel top on a windy north side hill Wednesday morning, and adding his song to the concert of Red-wing Blackbirds and others around the area. His ears are better than mine, and maybe he heard an answer, but to my hearing his was the only Song Sparrow melody nearby, and I saw no others. If he finds a female and they pair up, she will take four to five days to build a nest in vegetation on the ground, or on a very low shrub. She may lay three to five eggs. Apart from wind exposure, the patch of park where the male held forth looked favorable for breeding, as the mowing machines never went there, but the danger remains of libertarian dog owners who allow their pets to go snuffling ad lib through the vegetation. If undisturbed, the female will sit on the eggs for 12-15 days, with short breaks for feeding. When the chicks hatch, they are bare and helpless, but inside of two weeks, with both parents feeding them insects (protein) they reach 90% of adult weight and can leave the nest, and a few days later can begin to fly. Males learn to sing from listening to their fathers and to neighbors, and when grown up may have a repertoire of more than 30 different songs. Females clearly recognize different songs and often respond most positively to males with a larger repertoire.

Stopping Over

Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) with a Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

These Western Sandpipers came here on a visit to rest and refuel during their migration to their breeding grounds in the tundra of Western Alaska. They might have spent the winter as far south as Peru. They may fly as little as 150 or as many as 1150 miles in a day. The flock I saw on Tuesday morning counted maybe 200-300 birds. That’s a small fraction of the migrating population, which may approach a million. Most of the birds I saw pecked the mud seemingly at random, using neck muscles to make repetitive jabs short distances from one another, like stitches in a fabric. I did not see birds take anything as big as a pea. Whatever they gained was so small that they hardly had to open their bill. They may have been feeding on biofilm, a “surface matrix of microphytobenthos (principally diatoms), microbes, organic detritus, and sediment in intertidal habitats with high silt content,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the flock, I spied one (and possibly a second) Dunlin, marked by the black belly. Some Dunlin breed in the same Alaska habitat as the Western Sandpipers, and some also migrate south in winter, although generally not as far as the Western. They may show up in large flocks of their own. Whether this one or two Dunlin in a Western flock thought of themselves as fellow travelers or whether they believed they were Westerns is a question for bird psychologists or folktale writers.

Other Birds Seen This Week

My time in the park this past week was limited and I saw fewer birds than usual. The most remarkable for me were the Brown Pelican and the Spotted Sandpiper. The pelican perched on the rocks on the extreme northwest corner of the park, maybe twenty feet from a couple of park visitors on a bench. It’s unusual for a pelican to settle this close to humans. I took advantage by getting closeup photos. I wondered if it were injured, but it showed no sign of discomfort. It may just have been drying its wings, and it was too old and wise to worry about people on a bench, or photographers with tripods. The next day I saw a pelican who looked much like this one, hunting solo over the North Basin.

The other remarkable bird was the Spotted Sandpiper, finally seen here in breeding plumage, with spots. I’ve photographed this bird many times in its spotless winter dress. I last saw them in breeding plumage two years ago; see “Two With Spots,” Apr 8 2022.

Photogenic Squirrels

Possibly sensing that another campaign to exterminate them is brewing, as happened in 2014, the Ground Squirrels took care to pose in photogenic spots and show their best sides last week.

Ground Squirrels eat large quantities of weed seeds, helping to reduce the load of foxtails and other invasives. The burrows they dig aerate the soil and provide refuges for a number of other species, including Gopher Snakes, Western Fence Lizards, California Slender Salamanders, and Burrowing Owls. They provide occasional prey for big raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks. People should not feed the Ground Squirrels, that’s bad for them and causes overpopulation. Ground Squirrels are a treasure of the park.

Now in Bloom

With all the springtime rains we’ve been having, grasses and weeds are thriving. Here’s a view of the Native Plant Area‘s middle path, with the border vegetation waist high. And more is to come, when the Wild Mustard comes into season.

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2 thoughts on “Park Week 5/3/2024

  • Pingback: Park Week 5/10/2024

  • I appreciate all your postings the flowers as well as the birds. The flock of Ssndpipers is thrilling, seeing the pattern that they make and, yet they do not touch one another.

    I am, also,writing because I may have inadvertently unsubscribed. I do not wish to unsubscribe so please put me on the e-mail list again.

    Thank yo for all your great postings and all the work you do for all of us.

    Susan

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