Owner delayed reporting to West Berkeley businesses about toxic air reading

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The old loading dock of the Gilman District Commercial Building at 1001 Camelia Street is the site of a decades-old spill of the toxic dry cleaning chemical PCE. During an air quality sampling in December 2020, the Lark in the Morning instrument store (shown here, in the southwest corner of the building) recorded the highest concentrations of the chemical in the building, more than 200 times higher than state standards. Credit: Zac Farber

Tenants in a commercial building in the Gilman District of West Berkeley are frustrated that their landlord was slow to inform them that the air in their stores contains dangerous levels of a carcinogenic dry cleaning fluid called tetrachlorethylene, or PCE.

The block-scale building at 1001 Camelia St. houses more than a dozen tenants, including the recently opened Lulu Middle Eastern restaurant; an outpost of Blick Art Materials; the Berkeley Ballet Theater, which teaches dance to students ages 2 and up; Edah, a Jewish after-school program for children in Kindergarten to Grade 5; and Girls Garage, a non-profit workshop for girls and young men and women to learn construction and design skills like carpentry and laser engraving.

In late February, the building owner, Maffei Leasing, LLC, was notified by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board that the air quality samples showed contamination in excess of state limits, and asked the company to notify all of its commercial tenants by June 16. Maffei informed some tenants on June 3 – including the Lark in the Morning instrument store, which recorded the highest concentrations of the chemical in the building, more than 200 times higher than state standards – but the other tenants were not notified before the council deadline.

The council issued Maffei a notice of violation on June 24 for his failure to perform the required monthly air quality sampling. For a number of tenants, receiving a copy of this notice was the first time they learned that unsafe levels of PCE had been detected in the air in the building.

Maffei Leasing did not contact all of its tenants directly until September 9, when COO Tannette Maffei sent a one-page letter outlining the steps she was taking to mitigate their exposure to the toxic chemical.

Emily Pilloton-Lam, executive director of Girls Garage, which has occupied the building since 2016, said she did not understand what had happened until she received the September 9 letter. The delay was “extremely frustrating,” she said.

Eric Azumi, owner of Lark in the Morning, said that even though the board had given Maffei nearly four months to notify tenants, he wished his landlord had informed him of the contamination before signing a lease in the building in April. “The hardest thing has been the relative lack of communication,” Azumi said.

Due to Maffei Leasing’s subsequent compliance with testing and reporting requirements, the board will not impose any penalties, officials said.

A decades-old spill

The building, which runs between Ninth and Tenth Street on the north side of Camelia, has been under environmental monitoring for decades due to a spill near the old loading dock by a company of laundry and dry cleaning service that operated on the site from 1978 to 1983, according to documentation from the City of Berkeley and the Water Quality Control Board.

In March 2000, environmental tests detected high levels of PCE in soil and groundwater samples. Inhalation of the chemical has been shown by the EPA to cause upper respiratory irritation, headaches, mood swings, and kidney dysfunction, with chronic exposure linked to more severe effects including including several types of cancer.

Although the chemical poses serious health risks, the levels detected reflect a slightly elevated risk of cancer only after decades of daily exposure, said Nathan King, senior geological engineer for the Water Board. “It’s a very conservative level of screening.” He said the exposure is not expected to cause any immediate health problems.

Between 2009 and 2015, the council used chemical treatments to deal with the spill, but efforts were ineffective. Although initial testing suggested that the spill did not affect the air quality in the building, more in-depth air vapor sampling was carried out on December 10, 2020.

An assessment of those samples released Jan. 29 revealed unsafe levels of PCE. State environmental control requirements allow two micrograms of PCE per cubic meter of air. Each of the five samples taken from the entire building exceeded this limit, with readings 7.5 to 225 times above the allowable limit.

Five air vapor samples (reading shown in green) were taken inside the 1001 Camelia St. building in December 2020. All five samples showed PCE levels above the state limit of two micrograms. per cubic meter of air. Readings in red indicate soil vapor levels, which pose less of a health risk to building occupants. Credit: San Francisco Bay Area Water Quality Control Board

Maffei was briefed on the water board’s report on February 25. Company representative Janiele Maffei declined to answer questions about why he did not initially conduct air quality sampling and why it took more than six months for some tenants are informed of the contamination.

A second round of air quality readings taken in August shows that although some PCE concentrations have declined from December 2020, 19 of 21 samples still exceed state standards. Reading in Lark in the Morning is always 170 times over the allowable limit.

Air vapor readings taken in August. Credit: San Francisco Bay Area Water Quality Control Board

“The health and safety of our tenants is of the utmost importance to us,” Maffei wrote in a statement. “We are working with agencies to mitigate any risk and protect public health and safety. This is and will remain our priority. “

‘I should have known’

Eric Azumi, owner of Lark in the Morning, is now minimizing the time he and his four employees spend in the store’s warehouse, where PCE concentrations are highest. If the air quality does not improve, he is considering moving.

To manage the potential risk to air quality, Girls Garage hired both an environmental lawyer and a consultant from environmental company Exponent. The fact that experts confirm the immediate low health effects posed by air quality “alleviates a lot of our concerns,” Pilloton-Lam said. “But that doesn’t take away that feeling of ‘I should have known that. “”

Jeffery Baker, a Berkeley resident whose 12-year-old daughter trains at the Berkeley Ballet Theater 10 hours a week, said he was “outraged” when he learned the owner had delayed reporting the studio on contamination. But for now, Baker still allows him to attend. “I’m not sure it’s fair for the kids to cancel their activities,” he said.

Building owner Maffei Leasing, LLC has installed air cleaners in the Lark of the Morning instrument store and other tenant spaces. Credit: Jesse Kathan

The garage and the Berkeley Ballet Theater continue to host classes and keep their doors open during opening hours. Maffei provided air filtration units throughout the building, Pilloton-Lam said, and fitted some units with HVAC systems.

To tackle the source of the dangerous vapors, the Regional Water Council plans to use a state grant to fund an excavation of the old spill site to remove soil where PCE concentrations are the most common. higher. The grant will also fund the installation of a network of pipes under the building, which will act like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up dangerous fumes before they enter space.

King expects construction to begin by the end of October. After the underground pipes are installed, air quality will still be monitored for a period of up to two years, with the water board confirming that the system is working. Treating chemical contamination of soil and groundwater will likely take several more years, King said.


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