Feature Stories

Darren Hall, M.D., M.P.H. and Gina Solomon, M.D., M.P.H., September 2020

Trash Talk–Digging out Environmental Justice History in Richmond, CA

“Garbage Mountain,” more formally known as The West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill (WCCSL), is a 340-acre site located in North Richmond, CA that was initially built on farmland on the San Pablo Bay shoreline in 1953. The landfill served as a dump for both residential and commercial municipal solid waste until 2006. It also accepted hazardous waste until a community campaign closed that portion of the landfill in 1985. The waste extends 25 feet below sea level due to compaction caused by the “mountain” that also produces methane gas and leachates (water that has percolated through the waste and leached out some of the chemicals). Today the WCCSL continues to function as a material sorting and recovery site which includes construction debris, recyclables, demolition remains, and biological composting.

On August 27, 2020, nine UCSF residents and a faculty preceptor visited the landfill site to learn about occupational and environmental health challenges for workers and the community. The UCSF team met with representatives from the landfill together with a Bay Area Air Quality Management District inspector to learn about the history of the site.

Air pollution created by heavy trucks transporting waste to and from the landfill’s transfer station and other environmental challenges have tarnished the quality of life and affected Richmond’s reputation for decades. “North Richmond leaders feel that the public perception of their neighborhood as a place with severe environmental degradation has long thwarted development. The reputation for air, water and soil pollutants may have hurt investment, depressed land and housing prices, and dimmed prospects for the community.” according to Supervisor John Gioia, who represents North Richmond.

In 2016, compost at the landfill did not decompose properly and started combusting during the warm summer months, filling the air with a noxious odor that drifted into bordering communities nearly four miles west of the landfill. Contra Costa County issued a cease-and-desist order to the operator, together with large fines for the noxious odors that residents blamed for their headaches and sore throats. A work plan has since been enacted to mitigate and prevent odors.

A 2009 report by researchers from USC and UC Berkeley titled The Climate Gap shows that people of color experience markedly more industrial greenhouse gas pollution than whites. Furthermore, the inequality is most pronounced for African Americans. Even when comparing diverse racial groups who have equivalent incomes, people of color are more likely than whites to live near areas of industrial pollution. Much of this air pollution is linked to cancer as well as lung and heart disease. This study also shows how charging major polluters mitigation fees could be advantageous if used to improve air quality and generate employment in disadvantaged communities.

People facing away from the camera. Fortunately, a mitigation fund marked for community development in North Richmond was created to compensate the city for its downwind exposure to the WCCSL transfer station that still operates there. The fund generated over $650,000 last year in fees, providing funding for clean-up of litter, enforcement of illegal dumping, and community gardens, among other projects.

Another silver lining is the conversion of the remainder of the site to recreation uses and open space lands like the Wildcat Creek Marsh and Landfill Loop Trail. This trail system offers magnificent panoramic views across San Francisco Bay. In addition, it provides some green space and an opportunity for physical activity in a community that is otherwise at high risk.

During the UCSF tour, there were no significant odors. The faculty and team of occupational and environmental medicine residents learned about state-of-the-art strategies adopted to address community concerns and to reduce emissions of both methane (a potent greenhouse gas) and other pollutants from the facility. Placing a landfill adjacent to the San Francisco Bay and near a residential community in the 1950’s was a poor land use decision. However, it is encouraging that there may be some things that can help alleviate this environmental injustice.