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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Whistleblower Accusations at Sherwin Williams Toxics Cleanup Site

Project Manager at Sherwin Williams 
Toxics Site:
Substandard Clean Up, Pressure From Developer

A rank and file Project Manager at the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) is charging that developer Lennar Multifamily Communities, a nationwide home builder, attempted to avoid adequate investigation and clean up at the Sherwin Williams-Emeryville brownfield site in cooperation with DTSC management, potentially putting future residents at risk of exposure to poisonous volatile organic compounds.
The DTSC employee, Project Manager Tom Price, who until recently had been providing regulatory oversight for the Sherwin Williams clean up, has filed complaints with the DTSC and other government agencies over fast and loose practices he says that presumably would benefit the developer who seeks to build hundreds of apartments on the site.  Most egregiously, the developer failed to initiate groundwater pumping to prevent arsenic from migrating off the site to downstream properties as required under a 2010 cleanup plan, he says.

Mr Price alleges that soil ‘characterization’ was inadequate in the locations of planned building footprints at the site, and that an executive-level DTSC manager who has since retired, attempted to give the developer a free pass by side stepping standard DTSC protocols, including requiring adequate sampling coverage and representative sampling that would work towards the benefit of the developer.  Unacceptably high levels of ground water arsenic observed in test wells along the western boundary of the property were ignored for years he says, allowing the poison to migrate off the property toward neighboring properties downstream in violation of a 2010 Remedial Action Plan approved by DTSC.

Former Project Manager Price told the Tattler he asked to be re-assigned following his requested customary due diligence and investigation documentation after those requests were ignored.  He indicated he was getting “interference” from DTSC management at the Sherwin Williams clean up and that also contributed to his request for reassignment.

Mr. Price told the Tattler that arsenic concentrations began to exceed allowable limits at the test wells migrating off the site three years ago and that downstream property owners were not notified as would normally occur as part of a public noticing of a proposed cleanup plan amendment which the consultant and developer hoped to avoid.  He subsequently alerted his higher ups that the site was "out of compliance" with the clean up plan.  In January of this year, the consultant for the developer started collecting groundwater samples at the Bay Street Development property to the west of the Sherwin Williams site and in the path of the migrating plume of arsenic, probably as a result of Mr Price’s complaints.  However required pumping has still not occurred for arsenic laced groundwater near Temescal Creek he alleges.
The groundwater arsenic ‘off site’ migration is particularly concerning having come in the face of warnings from the whistleblower, "Despite the ground water exceedances at the property boundary which should have triggered pumping, the developer and their consultant submitted a 'modeling report'.  When the model appeared to fail, they still didn't initiate pumping and as a result, the site has been out of compliance with the clean up plan for three years" he told the Tattler.

The site still lists Tom Price as the
project manager.  Photo taken this week.
The agency has been under a lot of pressure to speed up the final clean up at the site by the developer Lennar who stands to benefit by a fast construction schedule.  Rather than conduct customary investigation, the developer appears to have opted to “strip mine” part of the site and as a result, what was originally planned to be an excavation 1000 square feet in size is now an acre and the site is covered with unplanned soil stockpiles.  Thousands of cubic yards of soil are now being off hauled, far more than what initial plans called for, Mr Price says.

The site, located at 1450 Sherwin Street, is bounded by Horton Street to the east, the former Rifkin Property and Temescal Creek to the north, Sherwin Street to the south and railroad tracks to the west.  A former paint and pesticide manufacturer,  Sherwin Williams maintained operations there from the early 1900s until it was decommissioned in 2007.  The plant manufactured various types of coating products including oil-based paints and latex paints. Other products which were manufactured at the site included extremely toxic lead-arsenate pesticides from approximately the 1920s until the late 1940s.
A series of soil, groundwater and soil vapor investigations by the DTSC were conducted at the site starting in 1988 which showed contaminants of concern including metals, volatile organic compounds, semi-volatile organic compounds, and hydrocarbons.

Contractors were still digging at the site as late as January.
Interim remedial measures, sometimes referred to as the "big dig" by residential neighbors, were initiated in the 1990s including construction of a subsurface containment slurry wall, asphalt cap, and groundwater extraction, and monitoring.  The latest clean up activity, begun in the early fall, has occurred in response to Lennar's construction timeline and has been centered on the south side of the property, previously under a concrete slab and not cleaned up during the big dig.  A remedial action plan was implemented by 2011 which involved excavation of 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil for off-site disposal and placing a Land Use Covenant on the property to restrict future usages.

The breakdown in normal clean up protocols served as an impetus for the complaints with the DTSC and other government agencies, starting in September.   “As a private citizen (separate from my job at DTSC), I filed complaints all the way up to the governor’s office against the developer Lennar Multifamily Communities. In my opinion, they endeavored to skip customary due diligence and investigation for hazardous substances for [Sherwin Williams], a housing development at former industrial plant.” Mr Price said.   After his replacement at the Sherwin Williams site Project Manager Bud Duke took over, Tom reports that citizen complaints that he filed, appear to have resulted in considerably more cleanup than the developer originally proposed.

The City of Emeryville has not been included in the list of government agencies Tom Price has filed complaints with but since the City issued a revocable 'grading permit' for the site to Lennar, the City theoretically has leverage to force compliance with the remedial action plan it is a signatory to.  The City, the former Sherwin Williams cleanup manger said, has interest in a proper clean up of the site for the protection of future residents.

A Lennar sign on the property line fence overstates
the condition at the Sherwin Williams clean up site.


  1. Lennar thinks it's ok to cut corners with arsenic in the neighborhood. I wonder how many Lennar employees would live there on the site. I'm thinking zero.

  2. Thanks for pulling back the curtain on Lennar's toxic site and to Mr. Price for pointing out the stink that he experienced behind the scenes. The arsenic contaminated groundwater problems and the lack of testing of the former Sherwin Williams site are both important issues brought to light here.

    This phase of the Sherwin Williams remediation under Lennar ownership began publicly in July 2019 with the wildly inaccurate DTSC announcement that 200 cubic yards of contaminated soil would be removed in 3 weeks. 6 months on, Lennar has removed over 9000 cubic yards.

    During the past 6 months of uncovering toxic soil the site's perimeter air monitoring data, which is supposed to confirm public and worker safety, has been plagued with "false positive" readings of elevated VOCs. The repeatedly inaccurate data has become a meaningless record of technical problems and intentions to correct the problems without results. The air monitoring data, which was to be posted publicly within 2 days of sampling, has often been weeks late and was mysteriously absent from public view for 45 days during the middle of the work.

    As a neighbor to the site who has tried to keep tabs on the remediation, I've come to know the Lennar portion of the DTSC remediation (since Price was reassigned) as inaccurate, after the fact, and lacking adequate explanations. The revelation that Lennar is exerting influence shouldn't come as a surprise but it does underline the fact that the developer is always working to achieve their goals and seems to be ready to circumvent standard protocols and sideline environmental and public health if doing so serves their interests.

    I suppose the City will trust DTSC to handle their oversight duties, but if the developer's influence compromises DTSC effectiveness, who steps in? Let's not expect more whistleblowers.

  3. This is unacceptable. Lennar shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. What can Emeryville do?

  4. Agreed. Emeryville should make sure this gets fixed except for the arsenic that's already flowed away :( . Tattler please keep on top of this and report back.

  5. Can we have Tom Price speak to the city council? They should get info directly from him and then if there's anything there, get a Lennar rep to speak. The city should get to the bottom of this before they start construction of the homes on the site. It's in Lennar's best interest because rent rates could suffer if the word gets out. Just get answers to some simple questions.