The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) thinks it’s a good idea to build their affordable housing project on a contaminated block in the Sunset. They say the risk of contamination can be mitigated for the people who will live in the building. And they’re willing to spend a million dollars or more to do that.
And yet the more we find out about this developer, the seller of the property, and the
overseeing environmental agency, the clearer it is that each of them is looking out for
themselves, but no one is looking out for the current residents of the Sunset.
Let us take a moment to explain how we got here.
How do we know this block is contaminated? Because in 2018, the Police Credit Union initiated a private environmental site assessment (ESA) of their property on Irving St. The results showed alarming levels of a volatile chemical called PCE (tetrachloroethylene) that was found as a gas in the surrounding soil and in the air of the Police Credit Union building. The environmental consultant who did the ESA concluded that:
“PCE soil vapor intrusion has impacted the indoor air quality of the subject site building and is a potential human health risk to building occupants.”
[Source: AllWest Environmental: Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Report, August 29, 2019 accessed at DTSC’s Envirostor]
PCE is so dangerous to human health that California is banning it by the end of next year.
The 2550 Irving Street property is located on a block that was home to two gas stations, a mortuary, and two dry cleaners. All these businesses used chemicals harmful to humans. Dry cleaners, in particular, have used PCE in its liquid form. When it is spilled, PCE can enter the soil when it seeps through cracks in the floor and foundation. When it enters the soil, PCE spreads in every direction and turns into a gas. The gas can then enter into buildings as the negative surface pressure draws it up through the cracks in the foundation. This is what happened at the Police Credit Union.
Through documents that were made public by the Department of Toxic Substances Controls (DTSC), we now know that after the first phase of this investigation was completed in early 2019—when the alarming levels of PCE were clearly known to the Police Credit Union—the Police Credit Union subsequently “significantly reduced their occupancy of the subject building restricting employee use to the western half of the ground-floor where retail financial services are provided to PCU members. Use of the second floor and eastern half of the first floor were curtailed to PCU staff.” In fact, the Police Credit Union had closed off 75% of their building, improved their ventilation and air filtration system and added four interior locking doors.
[Source: AllWest Environmental: First Quarter 2020 Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Report. Feb 13, 2020 accessed at DTSC’s Envirostor site]
All this information would have remained private were it not for a California law that requires state oversight when the PCE levels are found to be so high. These levels triggered a state response which brought the Department of Toxic Substances Controls (DTSC) in to oversee the investigation and any needed remediation.
DTSC currently believes there are two different plumes of PCE--one on the north side under the Police Credit building and another (that is possibly larger with higher PCE levels) that is on the south side of Irving. Both plumes—especially as the soil is disturbed by man-made or natural forces—will move down grade—north under the Credit Union and into the areas on 26th and 27th Avenue. DTSC says it doesn’t have the budget to do its own investigation of the south side plume. Even when DTSC finds a “responsible party” who is willing to pay for an investigation, this process will be two years behind what we know now. Before we know more about both these plumes it would be irresponsible to develop either side of Irving.
PCE is a carcinogen and the newest research—not taken into account by DTSC staff—also links it to neurological diseases such as Parkinson's. In twin studies, exposure to PCE was shown to increase the risk of Parkinson’s by 500+%.
In the two blocks around the Police Credit Union we have a cluster of cancer and Parkinson's. UCSF researchers who study PCE and Parkinson are now interested in extending an epidemiological study to this area. While it is very difficult to prove that a specific illness is caused by PCE exposure, this contamination discovery at the 2500 Irving block has made everyone in the neighborhood particularly sensitive to how this process is being handled. And what we have seen so far is that the buyer and seller of this property—two of multiple "responsible parties”— have rushed to limit their liability.
Within days of DTSC taking over the project, the developer, TNDC sought to sign a California Land Reuse and Revitalization Act (CLRRA) agreement with DTSC. The CLRRA
agreement indemnifies the developer from any environmental liability and limits their
responsibility to the property line. TNDC’s response plan (heavily influenced by DTSC
suggestions) is to spend a million dollars or more to put a vapor barrier under their building and install a ventilation system to protect the living areas.
[Source: TNDC’s project budget for 2550 Irving Street]
However TNDC’s plan does nothing to help clean up this mess. In fact it pushes the problem to the neighbors to the north on 26th and 27th Avenues. That’s because the highest levels of PCE are on the south side of the street. When PCE moves, it moves in the direction that groundwater flows and in this part of the Sunset the PCE plume will move north: right under the 2550 Irving property. When the plume moves under 2550 Irving, it will likely be protected with its new vapor barrier and ventilation system. But after the plume moves past this building, where does it go? Under our neighbors’ homes, built on crumbling foundations with no protection.
Whose problem will it be then? While the residents in the 2550 Irving building may be safe, the rest of the neighbors—north and south of Irving—are not.
A dash to limit liability and responsibility can also be seen with the Police Credit Union.
Previously the Police Credit Union had signed what’s called a “voluntary agreement” with DTSC. This sort of agreement allowed DTSC to have oversight of the project the Police Credit Union had initiated privately two years earlier.
However these voluntary agreements place some limits on DTSC's regulatory powers. For example, when we asked DTSC to do vapor intrusion testing in the houses close to the Police Credit Union, all DTSC could do was ask the Police Credit Union if they would be willing to do this. The Police Credit Union said no. Under a voluntary agreement DTSC can ask, but can’t demand. We then met with the Police Credit Union directly and made the same request. We asked: “might it be possible that your neighbors are breathing the same contaminated air as was in the Police Credit Union?” After all, our houses are built on hundred year-old cracking foundations that are even more susceptible to vapor intrusion than the 2550 building. The Credit Union’s response was stunning: first they minimized the problem in their building and then told us the neighborhood had nothing to worry about, without offering any kind of proof.
So we decided to find out for ourselves. We talked to geologists, toxicologists, the former mayor of Mountain View who is now the director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, and we spoke to an internationally known researcher at UCSF who studies PCE. We also read the private reports concerning the 2550 Irving investigation that DTSC made public and published on their website.
When these experts looked at the public data showing the location and amounts of PCE, they told us we should immediately demand that DTSC take three actions to protect the health of our neighborhood:
1. Develop a comprehensive plan to remove the sources of the PCE leaks.
2. Do more sampling of the soil so we will know the full margins of the spill.
3. Test the air in selected houses for PCE—on both sides of Irving. This is how the Federal EPA would manage this. We think the DTSC should do the same. Especially knowing how old the houses are in the neighborhood.
Here’s the crux of the problem for our Sunset neighborhood: DTSC is a state agency that is poorly funded and currently plagued with a wave of retirements. They seek “voluntary agreements” (in this case with multiple “responsible parties”) in part because it minimizes their own expense. Because they can’t fund any clean-up project like this, they work on a “polluter pays” principle. While DTSC says the PCE in the area is “an unacceptable risk” they will also tell you—that based on what they know—they judge the risk to be fairly low—at least to any residents who would live in a new building with a vapor barrier and ventilation system. But when the DTSC project manager recently heard the condition of our home foundations, he admitted that DTSC’s risk assessment for the neighborhood was based on some faulty assumptions of our foundations. And so we need to ask: are there other faulty assumptions?
Every expert we consulted thought that DTSC should be demanding more of the “responsible parties.” Because of their contractual agreements DTSC might not be able to. That’s where our elected leaders come in.
It is clear there is much we don't know about this problem. Is there a chance that PCE has gotten into the ground water or sewer lines? How extensive is the spill? How fast are different parts of the plume moving? Is PCE vapor in any of the houses on either the north or south side of Irving? Are all the assumptions that the original consultant made correct? Some geologists we consulted questioned their sampling method.
We and other experts think that neither site should be developed until all these
environmental issues are fully understood and dealt with and are on the path to being
resolved for the neighborhood.
The Board of Supervisors is about to vote on whether to proceed with a loan to allow the developer, TNDC, to buy the land. It boggles the imagination why affordable housing needs to start out on a contaminated site. The experience at Hunter’s Point should give everyone involved in this process pause before going ahead with this.
This is not going away. It is going to be a long process to find the answers of how best to clean up this block and potentially the areas on 26th and 27th Avenue. There are far better, less expensive sites—without a toxic problem—in the Sunset to develop affordable housing. We support them and have even suggested alternatives. We understand and support the need for affordable housing.
In May the SF Board of Supervisors voted on a resolution (co-sponsored by our Supervisor, Gordon Mar) in support of Senator Dave Cortese’s SB 37 legislation. While this site is not currently on the Cortese list, it is the kind of site the legislation describes as being shortchanged when it comes to giving it the care and time it needs for clean-up to ensure the health of the people living nearby is protected. Governor Newsom recently made $350 million dollars available to deal with small toxic sites like these that are all over California. Finding funding for this clean up will be part of the solution. But a big part of the solution is to stop this 2550 Irving Street project before it is too late. Whether it’s 4 stories or 7 stories, putting a building on this block before there is a comprehensive plan to clean up the site, is a mistake and will haunt everyone involved in this misplaced project for years to come.
Our fear is that our health protection is slipping through the cracks of a regulatory system just as toxic vapors may be seeping up through the cracks of our homes.
As Senator Cortese said in Supervisor Mar’s news conference about SB 37, “This is not Nimbyism. We are not afraid to have housing or development in the neighborhood." When it comes to risking our health and safety, we need to be heard and supported and be certain that we will be protected.
We urge you to vote NO on the pre-development loan to TNDC as the first step in helping the Sunset deal with this complex public health issue.