Laborers, Advocates, and Elected Officials Support SB 37 for Oversight on Cleanup of Contaminated Sites

Laborers, advocates, and elected officials voiced their support of Senate Bill 37, The Hazardous Waste Site Cleanup and Safety Act, for increased oversight on the cleanup of contaminated sites in California. SB 37, authored by California Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), would close a loophole and ensure that no exemptions to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), including the “Common-Sense” Exemption, can be granted on “Cortese List” sites, which in San Francisco often involve underground storage tanks for gas stations and other industrial uses. The “Cortese List”, or the Hazardous Waste and Substances Sites List, was created by Senator Cortese’s father Assemblymember Dominic Cortese in 1986 through AB 3750.

We cannot continue to allow projects to bypass important CEQA review and jeopardize public health and worker safety,” said SB 37 author Senator Dave Cortese. “Pursuing these projects without public accountability and appropriate cleanup poses severe health risks to laborers working on the site, members of the community that live near the site, and future tenants of the property.”

Common-Sense exemptions by law can be granted: "Where it can be seen with certainty that there is no possibility that the activity in question may have a significant effect on the environment, the activity is not subject to CEQA." The most prominent case in San Francisco involved a neighborhood group’s challenge to the CEQA exemptions granted to the monitoring and cleanup plans for a 100-year-old auto body shop where levels of benzene and other substances far exceeded safety standards for both industrial and residential uses--at a site slated for condominium development. CEQA ensures that the public can access and participate in environmental review of projects with significant environmental impacts.

The state has passed laws to prohibit categorical exemptions from being granted to projects impacting sites listed on the Cortese List because their contamination poses significant risk to our public health and environment. Local agencies have skirted this law by granting Common-Sense exemptions allowing projects to be carried out without adequate environmental review and public scrutiny. SB 37 will prohibit the use of Common-Sense exemptions for projects located on Cortese List sites.

Vince Courtney of the Northern California District Council of Laborers said that laborers and those that work in the building trades are the first ones being subjected to the carcinogens and dangerous chemicals present at these sites.

It isn’t until after the fact that we know how dangerous the situation is,” Courtney said, adding that this bill will go a long way in preventing profits from taking precedence over people.

There is no justification for prioritizing time and money over public health and safety,” said Katherine Howard, Sierra Club San Francisco Group Executive Committee member. “We don’t need to look very far to see the tragic examples of Bayview-Hunters Point and Treasure Island. California residents should be able to rely on our state and local governments to ensure that future projects on Cortese List sites are developed in a safe way. This is a matter of public health and environmental responsibility.”

SB 37 will also update the state’s management of this critical information on the Cortese List as it informs construction projects on industrial sites, contaminated wells, hazardous waste and other facilities that are barred from receiving exemptions to environmental review through CEQA.

San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar has introduced a Resolution in support of SB 37 to be heard in front of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors'. Currently 5 members of the Board of Supervisors have cosponsored this resolution: Supervisors Mar, Melgar, Peskin, Preston, Chan, and Haney, as well as Board President Shamann Walton. 

“Exposures to toxic substances found in structures left on these sites, like underground storage tanks, have penetrated the soil in groundwater beneath these sites and also pose risks to human health and the environment,” said San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar. “These risks signal the need to monitor as well as remediate the contamination”

There should be no question that common-sense exemptions shouldn’t apply at these sites where there are risks of contamination”, said San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston “It doesn’t make ‘common-sense’, it doesn’t make any sense,” he continued.

For over three decades, the Cortese List has documented historical and ongoing contamination to ensure proper oversight as well as mitigation for sites that are redeveloped for housing and commercial uses.

Watch the full press conference at this link.