Toxic groundwater stalling Berkeley skateboard park

The opening of a long-awaited Berkeley skateboard park has been put on hold while the city cleans up a chemical found in groundwater on the site that is the same toxin made infamous in the film 'Erin Brockovich.'

The San Francisco Chronicle

December 05, 2000 — The opening of a long-awaited Berkeley skateboard park has been put on hold while the city cleans up a chemical found in groundwater on the site that is the same toxin made infamous in the film "Erin Brockovich."

But a city official said yesterday that the chemical, hexavalent chromium, posed no health threat because the contaminated area was not used for drinking water.

The skate park, along with two just-completed athletic fields for youth soccer teams, was being built on the site of a former shoe factory at Harrison and Fifth streets in industrial West Berkeley.

City workers testing groundwater at the excavation of the 18,000- square-foot park in mid-November found levels of hexavalent chromium as high as 2.1 parts per million, more than 40 times the level considered hazardous in drinking water.

According to Nabil Al-Hadithy, the head of Berkeley's Toxics Management Division, the risk of exposure through skin contact or inhaling dust from contaminated soil is minimal to workers on the site, and there is no threat of contamination to drinking water.

The construction site has been closed off and work stopped. No one in the city will say when or whether the skate park will be completed, although it won't be before spring.

"We don't want to take any chances," said Mayor Shirley Dean. "First, we want to stop the pollution, wherever its coming from. Second, we need to figure out what to do about it. And step three is figuring out who's to blame."

The source of the chemical appears to be a chrome plating company, Western Roto Engravers Colortech, located a block away at Sixth and Harrison streets. City officials have been working to get the company to clean up the hexavalent chromium on its own property for the past three years and now believe a plume of the toxin has seeped under the skate park site.

Because the skate board course includes a 9-foot-deep bowl that was excavated down to the water table, contractors installed a pumping system to keep water from seeping into the bowl. City officials now believe the toxic plume may have been drawn under the park as the water was pumped out.

The city has temporarily stored the contaminated water in rented tankers at the site and is trying to figure out how to safely dispose of it. Public officials must also decide how to proceed with the park.

"We need to figure out whether there's a way to keep the existing design and contain the water or redesign the skate course by capping it off and building it above ground," said deputy city manager Phil Kamlarz. "There will probably be some redesign."

The adjacent Harrison Park soccer fields, named in memory of Berkeley High School student Gabriel Catalfo, who died of leukemia, were used during the fall soccer season, and both city officials and soccer boosters insist they are safe.

"There's no evidence of contamination on the playing fields," said Tim Perry, president of the Albany-Berkeley Soccer Club, which represents more than 1,000 players, including Perry's own 10-year- old son. "I'm absolutely not worried about the kids' using those fields. I understand they tested the soil extensively to be sure it was clean."

But City Councilman Kriss Worthington said he believed the city should have done more investigation about toxics on the site before it bought the 6.4-acre parcel from the University of California at Berkeley last year for $2.8 million.

The city did not find hexavalent chromium when it tested the surface soil for toxins before the purchase, but Berkeley environmental activist L.A. Wood contends the city wasn't thorough enough.

"I'm shocked at how this plume was so mismanaged," said Wood. "I have a difficult time understanding how their water samples missed (the chemical). Who would believe that 'Erin Brockovich' could play in Berkeley?"

The film is based on the story of a legal assistant, played by Julia Roberts, who won a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for poisoning the water supply of a Southern California town with hexavalent chromium from a power plant.

At its meeting tonight, the Berkeley City Council plans to earmark $100,000 for cleanup of the chemical and completion of the park, but Worthington says the cost could be many times higher.

Officials at Colortech could not be reached for comment.

"I'm totally committed to having a skate park in Berkeley," said Dean. "If it isn't on this site, we'll find another."

© 2000 The San Francisco Chronicle. via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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