Is It Safe?

August 27, 2011

Sherwin Williams asks for extended work hours (evenings, Saturdays), while refusing repeated requests for testing

Bulldozers generating dust during clean-up of Sherwin Williams property

Sherwin Williams has spent the past 45 days cleaning up the mess it made during its heyday dacades ago, when it was busy “covering the world.” And it’s quite a mess. More than 8 acres of land at the corner of Sherwin and Horton streets in Emeryville is contaminated with arsenic, lead, and solvents like benzene.

While the clean-up –- reportedly just one-third of the way done –- is good news, the bad news is the clean-up is generating dust – a dust that residents say is sticking to their cars, blowing into their open apartment windows, and leaving a layer of grit on their morning newspapers.

“It’s a change I’ve noticed since the clean up started,” said nearby resident Archana Horsting, referring to the dust on her newspaper. “I feel like I need to wash my hands because I don’t know what it is.”

A list of some of the toxins contained in the soil, posted in the window of the Sherwin Williams office facing Sherwin Street

Horsting, a long-time resident of the Emeryville Artists’ Cooperative (EAC) and Executive Director of the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, spoke at a recent meeting between EAC residents, and representatives of Sherwin-Williams (S-W) and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which is charged with monitoring clean-up safety. Sherwin Williams requested the meeting to notify residents it will be asking the City Council for a permit to extend clean-up hours to include Saturdays, and weekday nights until  9 pm. As it is, work starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 6 pm. S-W says it’s behind schedule and wants to finish before the November rains, which will make the operation more difficult, and more expensive.

Sherwin Williams will make its request at the City Council’s Sept. 6 meeting.

Initially blaming other possible sources, like street cleaning, S-W representatives at the meeting finally conceded that the site might be the source of the dust, but it was from a non-toxic, dirt-like material added to the toxic sludge so they can load and transport it more easily. But many EAC residents attending the meeting asked how Sherwin Williams can be sure if it won’t test.

“Can you test it (the dust), just to put our minds at ease?,” asked EAC Board Member Robin Bernstein.

When pressed, Mara Feeney, a public relations person hired by Sherwin Williams to deal with community concerns, finally agreed to query the company further about the possibility. However, several days later, she said, “They (S-W) have issues with it, since the dust testing that was done years ago was inconclusive and there is no ‘baseline’ data to use for scientific comparison.”

With regard to other EAC residents’ concerns over the extended work hours, like noise, she said engineers will “try their best” to work around EAC members’ schedules.

A 12-foot-high wall, from just north of 45th Street to the Novartis parking lot, contains the clean-up operation, shielding it from public view. Sherwin Williams had solicited the community for Haiku celebrating their paint colors to adorn the wall, but apparently received few submissions. The ones they did get are obscured by scaffolding and "No Trespassing" signs.

Meanwhile, S-W and DTSC representatives at the meeting said there are plenty of safeguards in place, including mist machines designed to keep down the dust, and air monitors around the perimeter of the site to measure it’s toxicity. The private company (subcontracted by Sherwin Williams) to ensure the safety of the clean-up was apparently doing some sampling, but stopped after the first few samples were deemed to be within required limits.

Previous requests for testing had been made (by this reporter, who lives at the EAC) both to the DTSC (whose expenses are paid by Sherwin Williams), and Bay Area Air Quality Management (BAAQM). Both have refused, explaining that it appears Sherwin Williams is doing what it should, including taking air monitor readings around the site perimeter, so testing is unnecessary. BAAQM said that, under the circumstances, it “could not justify the expense.”

(To comment on this story, or to read the comments of others, please click on the story headline to go to the story page, then scroll to the bottom).

16 Responses to Is It Safe?

  1. Scott Donahue on August 28, 2011 at 12:48 am

    Independent verification is important in order to live a normal life next to this cleanup site. If Sherwin-Williams will not pay for this dust to be tested perhaps the city of Emeryville should pay for this. We have children and food gardens in our community which may be accumulating toxins at a rate that is different than the one measurement device that was operating on the fence up wind of our property.

    • Brian Donahue on August 28, 2011 at 4:10 am

      I agree, I think the city of Emeryville should pay for testing since Sherwin Williams won’t.

  2. Joan Strasser on August 28, 2011 at 2:39 am

    We live in a corporatocracy. If our taxes fund BAAQM they should test if the public demands it. No testing by any corporation or its subcontractors can be trusted, based on the present record of such arrangements across the country. Only demonstrations, letters to BAAQM, and other organized protest techniques will get the testing we need. If the city of Emeryville pays for testing the city will waste its money if any outfit with ties to SW is hired.

  3. Michael Webber on August 28, 2011 at 3:25 am

    Has anyone taken this to the City Council? To the labor council (this is a union jobsite, right?)?

  4. Tim Curran on August 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Dust Sample Taken

    On 7/21/2011, after noticing an increase in the dust on Sherwin St., I gathered a dust sample
    from the road surface at the intersection of Hubbard and Sherwin. The sample was analyzed for lead and arsenic by Micro Analytical Laboratories, Inc. of Emeryville ($80.00). The sample showed: lead 280 ppm(parts per million) and arsenic 290 ppm. The EPA has set the actionable level for lead in a residential exterior area with child contact (think yard, planting strip) at 400 ppm. I don’t know of any level limit for arsenic but I suppose there must be one.
    As far as I understand it, the City of Emeryville would only be concerned if the amount of contamination of their streets would cause a violation of the Clean Water Act by polluting the storm water run off. This seems unlikely.

  5. Michael Webber on August 28, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    I don’t care what the EPA limit is, there is no excuse for concentrations of that level coming from a job site, which is controllable, as opposed to coming from other environmental sources which cannot be controlled.

  6. Employee of Emeryville on August 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    I think it’s criminal that it is okay for the company to hire a representative for them, instead of actually having someone in the leadership of the company show and have to answer the questions.
    Why should the company change when those in control don’t even have to hear the complaints leveled against them?
    It’s a slap in the face to the community they can’t be bothered to show up, and instead send some nobody who has no power, or even intimate knowledge of the situation, and who isn’t even an employee of the company.
    Why the residents of this town put up with this kind of BS year after year is beyond me.

  7. Emeryville Bike Rider on August 29, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    I’ve been riding my bike past this site and it looks pretty scary. I see the mist happening, but the wind is blowing the mist away from the toxic site. I am not sure how that misting helps. I hope for the people living in the area that this gets taken care of as soon as possible. I’ve changed my route now that I know what is really going on! Even if it is plain old dust, it still can’t be good for the neighbors living so close by.

  8. Mara Feeney on August 30, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Tracy—A few corrections: I relayed the dust sampling request to Sherwin-Williams immediately after to Coop meeting, and we are still discussing it. Extensive dust sampling that was done at the Coop several years ago, with federal, State and County agency involvement. You can read about it in several documents in the local information repositories and online on DTSC’s Envirostor website. Results were inconclusive.

    The construction fence is 12 feet high, not 15. We have received over 50 haiku submissions to date from people who live and/or work in the area. We continue to install poems on the painted wall at a rate of about one per week. Twelve poems have been put up so far, and more are planned for the coming weeks. A recent graduate of Ex’pressions is overseeing this summer work.

    We have received complaints from very few area residents, and we have responded to those quickly. We have also received many favorable responses from area property managers, businesses and city representatives about how the remediation work is going. We will continue to work diligently to minimize impacts on the community and to respond to community concerns in a timely manner.

  9. Larry Mencin on August 30, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    Larry Mencin General Response:

    As the Sherwin-Williams’ Senior Environmental Manager for this project, I am based in Cleveland, but have been involved with Emeryville for a long term basis. This past year, I have spent over 90 nights in Emeryville. I regularly interact with the City, Cal EPA and the public. I attended two community meetings in August but flew home on August 17 (the day of the Coop meeting) for a family matter. For the most part we have received positive feedback from both the public and government agencies.

    This project has a state of the art Dust and Vapor Monitoring Plan and Controls approved by California EPA – DTSC and reviewed by BAAQMD, the City of Emeryville, the neighboring science based industries and the public in general. Air monitoring and sampling data to date have shown that the goals established for the project are being met. The interpretation of dust sampling results in a historically industrial, mixed use environment, can be difficult. In response to concerns raised by certain community members, I have directed our engineering team to develop a dust sampling plan for DTSC review.

    Mara Feeney, a public outreach specialist, was recommended by the City of Emeryville and has been working with this community for over 15 years, helping to keep the city and public informed about what is happening at the site and trying to help us address community concerns. Members of the community specifically requested that Mara be kept on the job this summer to act as Ombudsperson.

    People in the Emeryville community that have met me know, Sherwin-Williams and I welcome ALL feedback and comment as we work together to complete this project. If there are any additional issues please feel free to contact the Project Hotline 1-866-848-5307.

    • Brian Donahue on August 31, 2011 at 7:21 am

      Here it is almost September, months into this toxic remediation and Sherwin Williams is just now saying they will set up a dust sampling plan. They didn’t set up a dust sampling plan months ago, why?
      Meanwhile, several young children continue to live immediately adjacent to this site. The extra working hours Sherwin Williams is asking for will kick up dust after school hours. They need the extra working hours, why?
      If Emeryville wasn’t so much in the tank for the large corporations and instead had the residents interests at heart, there’s no way Sherwin Williams would be granted the extra working hours.

  10. Michael Webber on August 31, 2011 at 2:40 am


    Scheduling, test sample locations, number of tests please – I worked at a company which used industrial hygienists regularly, and this sort of work is no big deal for them. The main issue for nearby residents, who don’t have the benefits of air filtration units which are part of the HVAC systems in the nearby buildings, is transparency. Right now I suspect they feel let down by the refusal to simply conduct some testing. Retention of a fairly independent industrial hygienist to IMMEDIATELY begin taking samples and then putting a .pdf of the report online would probably do a LOT to reduce their concerns. Residents shouldn’t have to run out and pay for their own tests. I would urge you to reach out for that resident and pay for the test costs and to get a copy of their test report.

    We faced similar issues with aspergillis concerns raised by a building tenant at the company where I formerly worked. They jumped on it and ran real good tests – it was for the company’s protection as much as in response to the tenants’ concerns. It’s just good to exercise caution in these matters even if “not required by law,” which I believe was Sherwin-William’s initial response, which is totally bad public relations.

    Also re: Mara Feeney. I wince when she mixes in artistic haiku design comments, which is a nice aesthetic issue at the work site, with real, alarming, health concerns. Lead takes way long to get out of the body once it gets in. Public haiku that are appreciated by the community should not be mentioned in the same (possibly lead filled) breath.

    Michael Webber
    City Council Candidate 2011

  11. Lulu Stanley on August 31, 2011 at 4:28 am

    I live at the Emeryville Artists Cooperative and my studio is at the corner of 45th and Horton Streets, directly across from where S-W is working. Recently, during the clean up operation, the ground shook violently. It was horrific, the scariest thing I’ve experienced through this process and I’m sure there are new cracks in my wall because of it. It felt like the funhouse floors that shift back and forth. Sharon Wilchar said she felt it too. She said she called Mara Feeney immediately after it happened. I wonder if Sharon ever got an explanation from S-W. This could have occurred on other days too. It just so happened that this time we were both home.

  12. [...] previous Secret News post for more [...]

  13. Michael Webber on September 7, 2011 at 5:03 am

    At the City Hall meeting tonight (Tues Sept 6), I raised the issue of the dust with high lead content during the public comment period. Surprisingly enough, no local residents came to raise this issue. A rep from the artists’ co-op was the only other public commenter, and she said that most of the people who attended the artists’ co-op supported the extended work hours, with only a “couple of” people strongly opposed, and she ignored the “toxic dust” issue altogether.

    Surprisingly enough, Larry Mencin did not take the podium to address the lead in dust/testing issue I had publicly called to the Council’s attention, and initially it looked like the City Council itself was going to brush over it.

    However, after some extended discussion about the noise and impact on quality of life that would result based on the proposed after hours work, both Ruth and Jennifer DID ask questions about dust testing. At that time Larry Mencin did step up to the podium and confirmed that they just ran some tests and hope to have results back soon. I suspect he was advised not to even mention the positive (they DID run tests, according to him) unless there was no choice but to do so (is that transparency?).

    I urge residents who are sincerely concerned about this issue to press Larry at the resident meetings or via Mara Feeney, and to do it promptly. While you no longer have the leverage of opposing the extended work hours, I think anybody wondering about what they are breathing over there should ask to see the tests.

    When it came to voting on the extended hours, Ruth proposed modifying the developer’s proposal to eliminate any Sunday work altogether, and to eliminate the use of dump trucks both at night and on Saturday. She proposed to allow rail car dirt removal only, since the rail cars pick up at the north end where there haven’t been any complaints. I thought Ruth’s compromise proposal was a thoughtful balancing which would allow the project to get done more quickly (before the possibility of rains completely blow the schedule for completion) while giving residents at least one day of rest and keeping the noisiest part of the work, the dump trucks, off the streets. I was happy to see her oppose Nora, who was pretty much completely pro-developer, and stand up for the residents EVEN WHEN RESIDENTS DIDN’T SHOW UP.

    Usually Nora is very savvy about informally asking the other council members how they expect to vote, but she didn’t this time, apparently confident that she would quash Ruth’s compromise position and get approval for the developer’s full proposal (although the developer agreed to take Sunday work off both alternatives).

    And then in a stunning reversal of fortune, Ruth’s amended extended hours motion failed to get enough votes, but then Nora’s un-amended proposal also went down in flames.

    Sherwin Williams went home very unhappy campers.

  14. [...] the Secret News have been monitoring the situation closely and more can be read about their concerns here. Additional concerns were raised by one citizen about the permanent loss of archaeological finds [...]

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