Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: A case of activism protecting citizens

Four years ago, a residential development on toxic ground in San Miguel was about to be approved by the county when alert citizens and responsive officials stopped it because of high levels of cadmium in the soil. Further sampling on the five-acre site for 24 homes revealed widespread contamination with many heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs and hydrocarbons.

One year ago, more than 400 tons of toxic soil was removed and sent to a landfill, greatly reducing the levels of pollution.

On April 22 of this year, the county Planning Commission approved the project with the conditions that prospective homebuyers will be informed about:

• the contamination, its cleanup and current status; and

• the availability of state, county and expert reports detailing that information.

As a result, the health of residents is better protected and their right to know about the risks of living in this neighborhood is enforced. Rather than being unwittingly exposed to bioaccumulative toxins and relying solely on governmental assurances that the risks are “acceptable,” property owners are empowered to reach their own conclusions based on accessible data.

Some additional background reveals why this is so important:

Four years ago, the level of cadmium at the site (24 ppm) was 67 times the average concentration found in average uncontaminated agricultural soil in California (0.36 ppm).

Although the county’s negative declaration (a full environmental impact report was not required) stated that the cadmium level was “above the regulatory limits,” staff urged the Planning Commission to approve the project, with a vague promise that the developer would eventually clean it up.

The developer, however, claimed that 37 ppm of cadmium (103 times the soil concentration cited above) was safe, and that no further cleanup was needed. Had the county fallen for that, residents would have been exposed to excessive levels of numerous pollutants.

Citizens intervened, recommending a more comprehensive and detailed examination of the site adjacent to the railroad tracks where a spur was once located.

After initial analysis by the county, the state DTSC (Department of Toxic Substances Control) took over the testing and declared the site a “brownfield” (a site with the presence or potential presence of hazardous contamination). The DTSC found a wide range of potent carcinogenic, mutagenic and disease-causing agents, including arsenic, beryllium, chromium, lead, thallium and vanadium, various PCBs, petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorinated pesticides and phthalates.

Four years ago, the concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and lead were 8, 67 and 16 times the levels found in average uncontaminated California agricultural soil. Today, those concentrations are much lower at 2, 5 and 6.

The DTSC has declared the risks of living on this ground “acceptable,” using two different cancer risk standards for different toxins (1 cancer/1,000,000 people and 1 cancer/10,000 people), the latter being 100 times less protective than the former. The inconsistent application of cancer thresholds indicates the influence of a level of subjective judgment in the DTSC’s conclusion, not an uncommon practice in risk assessments.

This demonstrates the importance of the Planning Commission’s recent enforcement of property buyers’ right to know, empowering them to decide for themselves the acceptable level of risk.

We’ve known for decades that some unsuspecting property buyers have purchased homes built on contaminated land — Love Canal, N.Y., is a prime example — leaving them to suffer the physical and financial consequences.

In this case, future homeowners in San Miguel can be assured that, as their children play in the yard and they harvest vegetables from their gardens, the chances of it making them sick have been greatly reduced.

This is a case of environmental activism protecting property rights. It shows that an active citizenry can work with a responsive government to protect others from undue harm, and that they need each other to do so. Those so engaged in many other such efforts are encouraged to keep it up.

Atascadero resident David Broadwater has been working on environmental issues affecting San Luis Obispo County since 1978.