Courtesy of Impact Sciences, Inc.

On March 2, UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy White is expected to vote for the approval of the controversial Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) expansion project. The plan has garnered backlash from local residents due to the fact that the facility, whose operations would include hazardous waste management, would be located within a quarter-mile of UC Riverside’s Child Development Center (CDC) and numerous residential areas including campus dormitories. Much of the criticism toward the project stems from the fact that the UC Regents and the UC Riverside administration had previously approved for the site to be built on the empty lot east of Parking Lot 30—situated away from any residential areas, meaning that the impact of an accidental toxic waste spill would be mitigated. “Hazardous waste storage doesn’t go with high density dorm housing, child day care, or single family homes.  Not when there are more suitable locations on campus that are non-residential,” said local resident and UCR alumnus Kevin Dawson, who has closely followed the project since its inception during Chancellor Córdova’s administration.

The proposed expansion would house administrative offices, a safety learning center and laboratories alongside material handling and storage space for waste. According to the draft environmental impact report (DEIR), the EH&S facility currently handles medical/biohazardous materials (280 pounds/year), radioactive (2,500 p/y), chemical (65,000 p/y), electronic (11,000 p/y) and universal waste (7,500 p/y). Despite the presence of such materials, the project leaders insist that members of the community, including children in the CDC, will be safe. “The types and quantities of hazardous materials stored would not be large enough to cause a major explosion or airborne release that could affect off-site facilities or reach the Child Development Center,” stated the DEIR. “The project would not pose a significant human health risk to Child Development Center related to emissions of hazardous substances or handling of hazardous [materials]…and impacts related to EH&S Expansion facility operations would be less than significant.” The DEIR evaluated eight different areas of concern—aesthetics, hazardous materials, land use, noise, transportation/traffic, air and water quality—for the project. Of the more than 35 subsections, all but three concerns—each related to noise levels—were deemed “less than significant” regarding the new expansion facility. The DEIR also noted that the new facility would allow for the EH&S Center to more easily meet federal safety and security regulations.

The EH&H expansion plan was officially announced in UC Riverside’s 2005 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). The university, facing an expanding student body and desire to open a medical school, deemed the current site (situated south of Lot 13) inadequate. One year later, the administration held two public meetings to gain community feedback regarding the proposed location of the EH&H expansion center; members of the community were informed that the best site was 3.2 acres of land between Linden Street and Watkins Drive. The site would encompass part of Parking Services, the entire community garden and the strip of bare land directly above Glen Mor Field. Local residents, including Kevin Dawson and Robert Phillips, complained that the location was too close to residential areas and that other sites were more suitable.  Assurances of the project’s safety were largely dismissed when residents took into account the potential impact of unforeseeable accidents and natural disasters.

“Interior spills resulting in toxic gas at EH&S would be vented to the outdoors. At one of the meetings, I asked whether this would occur, and the reluctant answer was ‘yes.’  Students at Glen Mor I and on the intramural fields could therefore be exposed to toxic gas,” stated Philips in an interview with the Highlander. The administration conceded to residents’ complaints and subsequently decided to move the location to the second best site: an empty lot, once used as a Caltrans construction staging area, east of Parking Lot 30 and at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Canyon Crest Drive. Other alternative sites were Parking Lot 13, Parking Lot 6, agricultural operations, the greenhouses area, the Latter Day Saints Student Center and the electrical substation adjacent to Parking Lot 30.

In 2008, the UC Regents approved an $18.5 million plan for the facility to be built on the 30,000 square foot property. The enactment of this plan would have involved an amendment to the 2005 LRDP; 2 acres of land previously reserved as “parking” would need to be re-designated as “campus support” to accommodate the facility. Construction was expected to begin in 2009 and be completed as early as 2011.  However, construction never began and the project was in limbo until 2010 when community members were informed that the expansion site had been changed back to Linden Street. In addition, the construction of the expansion facility would also involve the building of a new parking lot (lot 27). A draft environmental impact report (DEIR) was made the following year; after the DEIR was completed, the document became subject to 45 days of public review—the concerns brought up during this period are to be addressed in the final environmental impact report. The final report will be completed on Feb. 28 and will be reviewed by Chancellor White around March 2.

The DEIR, which includes detailed arguments against alternative sites, has prompted further controversy due to the assertion that the MLK/Canyon Crest location is no longer compatible with the LRDP. One month before the DEIR’s release, the UC Regents had approved an amendment to UC Riverside’s LRDP which completely eliminated the designated “campus support” area of the site and turned it into “parking.” One of the arguments of the DEIR, therefore, was that that the MLK/Canyon Crest site was no longer fit for the expansion use since it would violate LRDP land usage guidelines. Critics have fought back by arguing that LRDP guidelines can easily be amended; supporters need only recall the events of 2008 when the UC regents had approved an LRDP amendment related to that same parcel of land when it was the intended site for the EH&H expansion.  “They can just as easily amend it again to permit construction of the EH&S facility at the [MLK/Canyon Crest site],” said Phillips.

Other arguments against the MLK/Canyon Crest site state that the location restricts waste-carrying vehicles to a single route, possesses greater land use impact, is not an optimal location and is farther away from on-campus generators; the remaining factors—including the impact on air and water quality, amount of green house gas emissions and requirement of utilities—were deemed equal to the rates evident in competing locations including the Linden/Watkins site. Another potential factor for the switch are financial incentives; the 2007 study revealed that the MLK/Canyon Crest site would cost an additional $1.7 million dollars. In an independent study conducted by SRG Partnership, each of the sites was rated on a scale of 55 points; the Linden/Watkins site earned the highest score (51 points) while the MLK/Canyon Crest site was second (46 points).

In a Jan. 27 email, Chancellor White noted that the community garden—situated at the site of the proposed EH&H expansion—would be relocated to a one-acre site near Parking Lot 30.  “How ironic that they are moving a very compatible land use, such as a wholesome community garden, away from the student housing area, and then replacing it with a hazardous waste storage facility,” concluded Dawson.