Chu Boosts Berkeley Lab Projects; Foes Fear Strawberry Canyon Impacts

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:23:00 PM
Yellow balloons float above the Strawberry Canyon hillside next to the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, marking the site of a new lab just funded by Secretary of Energy—and former LBNL director—Steven Chu.
Richard Brenneman
Yellow balloons float above the Strawberry Canyon hillside next to the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, marking the site of a new lab just funded by Secretary of Energy—and former LBNL director—Steven Chu.

Plans for one new building at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) were soaring this week, just one week after another had received a major cash boost, thanks to the lab’s former boss. 

Four yellow balloons, tossed by the breezes almost always present in Strawberry Canyon, rose from the hillside immediately above UC Berkeley’s Botanical Gardens to mark the site of the lab’s new General Purpose Building. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the canyon, construction continues at the Advanced Light Source User Support Building, thanks to a $115.8 million grant funded by the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package. 

Secretary of Energy and former LBNL Director Steven Chu announced the grant as part of a $1.2 billion package of funds allocated under the American Recovery and Investment Act. 

In addition to bankrolling the support building, grant funds will also pay remaining costs for demolition of the lab’s Bevatron building and other projects at the UC Berkeley-administered Department of Energy lab in the Berkeley Hills. 

The “light” in the building’s title doesn’t refer to the spectrum visible to the human eye, but to intense ultraviolet and “soft” X-rays a billion times brighter than the sun’s, according to the facility’s website. 

The 31,000-square-foot project is being built by Overaa Construction, a Richmond contracting firm which also designed the building. According to the LBNL project website for the building, the construction project will cost $35 million. 


Garden woes 

The project that brought the balloons to Strawberry Canyon is the three-story, 43,000-square-foot General Purpose Laboratory building, designed to bring facilities now in leased space in West Berkeley back to the hillside. 

If approved, the project will arise immediately uphill from the 34-acre UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. 

The project has raised concerns from activists who say the university’s building surge along the canyon threatens wildlife. 

“It really feels like an ongoing assault on the canyon by the lab,” said Phila Rogers of Save Strawberry Canyon, an activist group which has filed legal challenges to lab projects. 

Rogers, who leads bird-watching trips at the garden four times a year, said she had been shocked by the placement of the building so close to the garden. 

She said garden staff were shocked as well, a fact confirmed in conversations with a reporter by staff members who declined to comment on the record because, as one said, “the lab is the 900-pound gorilla around here.” 

Rogers also faulted the university for using balloons instead of poles. “When I got up there (Tuesday afternoon), two of the balloons had already popped,” she said. 

“Balloons were chosen because they are quick and inexpensive and can help validate the visual simulations” that will be in the draft environmental impact report (DEIR), said lab spokesperson Lynn Yarris. “Also, balloons can be moved around as the design evolves.” 

During a session to gather public and city comments for preparation of an environmental impact review on the project, LBNL project manager Richard Stanton said the structure would hold office and “wet” labs. 

While about 100 of the staff assigned to the new building would come from offices to be vacated in West Berkeley, others will come from buildings at the lab scheduled for demolition because they are outmoded and seismically unsafe. 

Save Strawberry Canyon won a court victory in their challenge of LBNL’s proposed Helios building, designed to house labs funded by oil giant BP’s $500 million research grant to develop new fuels from genetically modified microbes and plants. 

While the Energy Biosciences Institute—the formal name given to the BP-funded project—is designed to develop cleaner fuels developed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Helios environmental impact report was rejected by the court for failing to consider the project’s own greenhouse gas impacts as required by state law. 

During the January meeting, lab officials said completion of the review and approval by the UC Board of Regents are tentatively scheduled for December, with construction starting the following month and completion by March 2015. 

Yarris said “the plan is to circulate the draft EIR for public comment starting this summer.” 

While he didn’t offer a specific cost for the new building, Yarris said the overall budget for the seismic upgrade project is $97 million, including the proposed lab building. 


Another lab 

Another UC Berkeley DOE lab has agreed to pay a $165,000 fine for illegally shutting down a toxic waste cleanup facility, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday. 

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had shut down the cleanup operation, resulting in the loss of control over a contamination of underground water that had spread outside the lab’s perimeter. 

“We’re pleased to have reached an agreement with DOE to resume cleanup,” said Michael Montgomery, EPA regional assistant director for the Superfund cleanup program. 

In 2007, the EPA certified the cleanup facility, which treats both soil vapor and groundwater. But the lab shut the facilities down early in 2008 and laid off employees, claiming the move had been necessitated by congressional funding cuts. 

Though full funding had been restored in July, the 28 treatment systems weren’t restarted, prompting action by the EPA, which describes the lab as “one of the most contaminated sites in the county.”