Skate and die? Toxic puddle forces Berkeley officials to close new
Corbett Miller, San Francisco Guardian, February
The Bay Area has long been a skateboarder's paradise,
wooing more kids with its concrete surfaces than with its baseball fields.
Now Berkeley has built what many locals call the best new skate park,
just a BART trip away from downtown San Francisco.
The park's double bowl, horseshoes, hips, and street course
make it an ideal spot for dedicated skaters and newcomers alike. The
only problem is the chain-link fence surrounding it, and the locked
The park, which opened Sept. 15 to streams of skateboarders
and can accommodate up to 200 a day, closed suddenly Dec. 24 when Berkeley's
Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department crews found the bottom
of the double bowl filled with groundwater. Lab tests soon revealed
the water contained toxic amounts of hexavalent chromium, also known
as chromium six.
With Berkeley's children rolling, flying, and eventually
falling all over the concrete park, the question is not why the park
closed, but why it opened in the first place.
The recent discovery of toxins at the site was not a complete
surprise to city officials, who knew as early as 1989 of chromium six
leaks from the nearby metal-engraving company, Western Roto Engravers/ColorTech,
at Sixth and Harrison Streets.
"We tried a very passive method of remediation,"
says Nabil Al-Hadithy, Berkeley's Toxics Management Department's hazardous
materials manager. Although WRE/ColorTech has spent more than a million
dollars trying to neutralize the problem, Al-Hadithy says, "they
have not been as aggressive as others."
But Bill McKay, WRE/ColorTech's general manager, says
his company originally went to the city when it discovered the situation
in 1989 and has been vigilant ever since. "It is Western's fault,"
McKay says, "but the city shouldn't have let the crews dig at that
In 1999 crews from skate-park construction company Site
Design Group began digging the deep bowls that would make the park a
local favorite, but they were forced to stop when they went below the
water table and encountered a plume of water containing toxic levels
of chromium six. At that point the city had to choose between scrapping
the plans altogether, finding a better site, and engaging in a costly
and time-consuming detoxification.
The city wants to save the park, so it enlisted the help
of two environmental engineering firms, the state's Department of Toxic
Substances Control and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality
Chromium six got its big-picture debut in Erin Brockovich,
in which Julia Roberts portrayed the unlikely real-life victor in a
battle against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. when the utility contaminated
a small southern California town's drinking water with the known lung
L A Wood, a local environmentalist, has battled the Berkeley
City Council and parks department since the park was originally proposed
in 1999. "The city was not practical; containment doesn't work
when it comes to hydrology," Wood says. "They knew they could
not build a subsurface structure."
However, others involved with the current dilemma are
more optimistic than Wood is when it comes to the future of the skate
park. Mark Seleznow, the deputy director for Berkeley's parks department
says the goal is to get the park open again, hopefully under better
circumstances. "It caught us all by surprise, but that's why we're
being so cautious this time around," Seleznow says.
Dr. Norman Ozaki, a specialist in human health and eco-risk
evaluation with SOMA Consultants, would not comment on specific details
of the current health-risk assessment, but says he feels confident the
park will be open again.
With the skate park in limbo, Wood has found a new focus
for his energies in the Harrison Street corridor. East Bay homeless-advocacy
group Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency has drafted plans
for a transitional-housing village located next to the closed park.
Even though plans for the housing project are in the early developmental
stages, Wood already has objections. "This housing project raises
the issue of environmental justice as perhaps no other property in Berkeley,"
Wood states in a letter to Wendy Cosin, Berkeley's deputy planning director.
BOSS's project developer for the Ursula Sherman village,
Daniel Barth, is not backing down because of Wood's concerns and says
he feels the needs of homeless people trump those of environmentalists.
"Environmentalists' concerns are small when compared
to housing," Barth says. "When they're doing their job, they
sometimes hinder other issues."
Steve Barton, head of Berkeley's Department of Housing,
says the city is concerned with the site but at the same time understands
BOSS's point of view: "It's not an ideal site, but I'm inclined
to think that unless something more serious shows up, we should get
people off the streets."
Meanwhile, skaters like John Schaub will have to
wait for the health-risk assessment to be completed before the city
makes any further decisions. "I think it's sad how they did it,
knowing full well the situation with the chemicals," Schaub says.
"The chances of it opening under these circumstances seem unlikely."