Park Week 6/14/2024

Native Plant Stewards

Weeding, watering, and whacking were the order of the day Sunday morning June 9 when Chavez Park Conservancy volunteers assembled for stewardship work in the Native Plant Area. Many of the about 200 native plants that volunteers put into the ground over the past three years needed relief from this season’s weed boom. We rolled out about 300 feet of garden hose and watered a number of plants that looked like they wanted a little boost to get them through the hot weather. And there was a lot of whacking required to clear the lower north-south trail in the Native Plant Area, completely obstructed by head-high weeds. Answering the call of Conservancy Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar were volunteers Virginia Altoe, Jutta Burger, Carlene Chang, Clyde Crosswhite, Donna Maniscalco, Martin Nicolaus, and Lee Tempkin.

Caught on a break: Jutta Burger, Donna Maniscalco, Bob Huttar, and Clyde Crosswhite, in the Native Plant Area June 9.

The lower path through the Native Plant Area: Before and After

Come Sing in the Solstice

The Summer Solstice, the tipping point between light and darkness in the Northern Hemisphere, happens on Thursday June 20. Beginning at 7:30 pm, there’ll be a gathering to celebrate the event at the Chavez/Huerta Tribute Site and Solar Calendar in the park, see map below. The gathering will have a bit different flavor this time. Usually one of the local astronomy teachers presides and explains how and why the Solstice happens and how different cultures celebrate it. This time none of the astronomy mavens is in town, and even Solar Calendar founder and curator Santiago Casal is away. So the astronomical teaching will be reduced to a few paragraphs in a handout, and the focus of the event will be something new: a Solstice Sing-Along. Featured artist is the famous local singer, songwriter, and author Hali Hammer, a member of Occupella and performer at hundreds of folk and movement events. The musical theme will be songs about the sun. We’ll sing “You Are My Sunshine,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “You are the Sunshine of My Life”, “I Can See Clearly Now,” and “I’ll Follow the Sun,” plus others if there is time and demand. View/download Solstice Flyer and Song Sheet. The sun sets at 8:30. There may be small refreshments; feel free to bring some. Prepare for cool and windy weather. Looking forward to seeing you there.

A Geiger Hike in the Park

Many people are anxious now about radioactivity in the park. After sitting on it for 44 years, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control recently released a 1980 report from Stauffer Chemical Co. admitting that it dumped some 11,100 tons of mixed industrial waste in what was then the Berkeley Landfill, now Cesar Chavez Park. Among these wastes was “alum mud,” the leftovers of bauxite ore after extracting aluminum compounds. This mud, said the DTSC, “typically” contains radioactive elements. Moreover, it reported that radioactivity was found at the Blair site in Richmond, where Stauffer also dumped its wastes. Ergo there might be radioactivity buried in the Berkeley landfill as well. Environmental reporter Tony Briscoe of the Los Angeles Times picked up the story, as did Iris Kwok of our local Berkeleyside, and before very long I had park visitors ask me whether I was not afraid to go into the park in view of the radioactivity possibly lurking there. In a radio interview last week, Briscoe called on the City to post warning signs in the park. One friend of mine mistakenly believed that radioactivity had actually been found in the park.

Well, I’ve been paranoid about radioactivity ever since the late 1970s when I worked in Building 77 of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (now National Laboratory). That’s the main machine shop for the Berkeley lab. We were getting aluminum pieces from the Livermore lab, where they research nuclear weapons, and some of these had little yellow “Radioactive” stickers on them. I asked my foreman for a Geiger counter so that we could see how “hot” these pieces were. He stuck his hand inside one of the Livermore pieces and said it’s not hot at all. And, if we put out Geiger counters, you guys would just take them out in the desert to hunt for uranium. This snowballed into a brouhaha. We were summoned to a general shop assembly, where we watched a 1950s movie made by General Electric about how radiation is everywhere, it’s natural, and it may even be good for you. I was branded a troublemaker for raising the issue, and before very long I was let go.

So when the shadow of suspicion fell on Chavez Park, I went on the alert. A bit of research uncovered additional possible radiation sources from uranium metal that Stauffer melted and machined in the early 1960s. It never disclosed where it dumped those wastes. See “Nuclear Waste Buried Here?” Park Week 5/17/24. Both Briscoe and Kwok missed that. Maybe this highly radioactive scrap was dumped here? Slim chance, but worth checking.

The 1980 Stauffer report led our regional Water Board to require the City of Berkeley to to scan the park for radioactivity. The City and its contractor, SCS Engineering Inc., which maintains the landfill, submitted an initial plan for such a survey, but the Water Board rejected it. The City now has to submit an amended plan by July 1, and if approved, it has 90 days to perform and report on the scan. Details. That would put off test results until October 1.

If there really is harmful radioactivity at the park, waiting more than three months to find out about it seems absurd and irresponsible. What to do? Back in the seventies, it didn’t occur to me to buy a Geiger counter and take it to work. I wouldn’t know where to buy one and they were probably very expensive. But this is now. A search of turns up dozens of portable Geiger counters ranging in price from less than $20 to more than $3,000.

After reading a score of reviews, I chose the GQ GMC-800, a battery operated model from a Seattle-based firm, priced at $99. It detects beta and gamma radiation. It arrived in two days, calibrated and fully charged. I took it into our backyard and got CPM (Counts Per Minute) readings of a low 5 in one corner and a high of 27 in a flower patch.

Guidelines with the unit advise that readings from 5 to 50 are normal background radiation. I read up on background radiation here and here and here.

Volunteers with the Chavez Park Conservancy have performed citizen science surveys of birds, plants, insects, and coverage of mammals in the park. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished in these areas. There seems no reason why we should not supplement our surveys of life forms with a citizen survey of radiation sources. And so, armed with the GMC-800, the guidelines, and my cellphone, and wearing my yellow Chavez Park Conservancy vest, I set out on a chilly, windy Thursday morning for a Geiger hike in the park. You can watch the video on YouTube, above.

My general plan was to hit the areas where most people congregate. First I looped the perimeter trail, a popular walking route. Then I took off diagonally on the dirt track from the southeast corner to the Flare Station. From there it was a short hop to the bulletin board and the dog washing station, and then to the picnic tables and the porta-potty, all in the Off-Leash Area. Next I checked out the picnic area on the northeast corner of the Native Plant Area. I swept all three north-south trails in the Native Plant Area. Then I zig-zagged across the Kite Lawn on the southwest corner of the park. I paid this area special attention because this was one of the earliest dumping sites and has the thinnest cover over the waste, and it’s a spot where people like to sit. From there I climbed the hill and then the next hill on the south side, and then circled back to cover the big picnic area and the drinking fountain leading up to it. Then I called it a day. I had a GPS tracker app running, and it charted my route and told me I had travelled 3.37 miles.

Blue line = my route in the park

Apart from the perimeter trail, I ignored the northern half of the park. Dumping started in 1960 in the southern part of the fill, next to Spinnaker Way, and very gradually moved north. The oldest waste is in the South, dumped more than 60 years ago. The youngest waste is on the north edge, about 40 years old. There was originally a levy running from east to west, bisecting the landfill into a northern and a southern half, approximately where the east-west trail is today. Whatever Stauffer Chemical or anyone else dumped in the park between 1960 and 1971 (the dates covered in the 1980 report) would have gone into the southern half, very probably near Spinnaker Way.

What did I find? There was not a single spot on my journey where radiation levels exceeded or even approached the background ceiling of 50 CPM. Most places had about the same level as my Berkeley backyard. The average level was 13.5. Only one spot, with a reading of 29, a freshly asphalted siding on the south side, exceeded the peak of 27 in my flower patch. I did not try to cover every square yard. I concentrated on the areas where most people congregate. I covered enough to put my own mind at ease about man-made radioactivity in those areas of the park. I feel confident in advising other park visitors that they are safe from excess radioactivity on the perimeter trail, in the picnic areas, around the Flare Station, at the dog park facilities, in the Native Plant Area, on the kite lawn, and on the southside hills.

Was this result surprising? Not deeply so. As the Toxic Substances Control Board said in its cover letter transmitting the 1980 Stauffer report to the Water Board, the Blair dump radioactivity levels were so low that it was “uncertain” whether they represented anything more than normal background. That uncertainty forms the entire basis for the Water Board’s decree requiring Berkeley to scan the park. See “New City Manager Memo: Nothing About Nothing,” Park Week 5/31/24. So, the finding of nothing exceeding background here was the most probable outcome. But one had to be sure.

If a volunteer wants to do a more extensive scan, or to replicate this one, I would be happy to lend the GMC-800 for that purpose. And of course, we will all wait until October 1 to hear the official report. I feel confident that the authoritative study, when it finally drops, will confirm the findings of this citizen science project.

— Martin Nicolaus

Feathers of the Week

Birds were out in relatively small numbers this week, and the ones I was able to photograph, even fewer. Forster’s Terns and Barn Swallows were active but moved too fast for my lens to capture them. I also saw House Finches and Nuttall’s Sparrows foraging in grass, defying my efforts to get them in focus. Here is the handful of images I managed to get:

Wounded Landscape

This is a part of the Protected Natural Area on the north side of the park. A landfill gas extraction well sits here. The excavation, ordered by the Air District (BAAQMD), punched through the shallow layers of fill dirt and cover clay into the garbage below. The excavation crew hauled out the waste and replaced it with clean dirt trucked in from somewhere else. The net result is a huge scar on the landscape of the Protected Nature Area. This is too large for volunteers of the Chavez Park Conservancy to repair. The City, and/or its contractor, need to step in and restore as much of nature as is possible, before the area gets overrun with foxtails and other ruderals.

5 thoughts on “Park Week 6/14/2024

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  • Thank you very much for all the work you do highlighting our beloved park, Marty, and especially your recent scan for radioactivity. I’ll save this post to share with others who might be concerned about coming to CCP. Best, Michele

  • I hope anyone worried about radioactivity in the park reads the report included in this post. After reading about the absence of any measured radioactivity levels above normal background values I am confident that there are no dangers related to radiation in Cesar Chavez Park. The study design was well thought out and the methodology scrupulously followed.

  • Thank you, Marty, for your great response to the concerns about radioactive waste at the Park! While there is still work to be done by the City to identify any deeper material that may become a concern with future excavation or sea level rise, you have certainly addressed the immediate risk of exposure. Well done!!

  • Marty, I can’t thank you enough for this work and report on possible radioactive concern at the park. I too always wanted my own Geiger counter but figured – too expensive. Maybe I’ll ask to borrow yours sometime for my own curiosity elsewhere. I’ll do anything to not buy from Amazon. I could say much more. I am deeply grateful for your care in reporting this.

    Did you send your findings to the reporters at Berkeleyside and the L.A. times?

    Will this satisfy McGrath about the possible depths and water? I think of all those submerged nuclear subs, including some for years up the Delta I believe.

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