Landlord delayed telling West Berkeley businesses about toxic air reading

The Gilman District landlord was also issued a notice of violation for failing to perform required monthly air quality sampling.

The former loading dock of the Gilman District commercial building at 1001 Camelia St. is the site of a decades-old spill of the poisonous dry-cleaning chemical PCE. In a December 2020 air quality sampling, the instrument shop Lark in the Morning (shown here, in the building’s southwest corner) registered the highest concentrations of the chemical in the building, over 200 times higher than state standards. Credit: Zac Farber

Tenants in a commercial building in West Berkeley’s Gilman District are frustrated their landlord delayed notifying them that the air in their shops contains unsafe levels of a cancer-causing dry-cleaning fluid called tetrachloroethylene, or PCE. 

The block-wide building at 1001 Camelia St. is home to more than a dozen tenants, including the recently opened Middle Eastern restaurant Lulu; an outpost of Blick Art Materials; the Berkeley Ballet Theater, which teaches dance to students 2 and older; Edah, a Jewish after-school program for kids in grades K-5; and Girls Garage, a nonprofit workshop for girls and gender-expansive youth to learn building and design skills like carpentry and laser etching. 

In late February, the building’s landlord, Maffei Leasing, LLC, was informed by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board that air quality samples had contamination exceeding state limits, and mandated the company to inform all of its commercial tenants by June 16. Maffei informed some tenants on June 3 — including the instrument shop Lark in the Morning, which registered the highest concentrations of the chemical in the building, over 200 times higher than state standards — but other tenants were not notified by the board’s deadline. 

The board issued Maffei a notice of violation on June 24 for its failure to perform required monthly air quality sampling. For a number of tenants, receiving a copy of this notice was the first they learned that unsafe levels of PCE had been detected in the building’s air. 

Maffei Leasing didn’t reach out to all of its tenants directly until Sept. 9, when chief operating officer Tannette Maffei sent a one-page letter outlining the steps it was taking to mitigate their exposure to the toxic chemical.

Emily Pilloton-Lam, executive director of Girls Garage, which has occupied the building since 2016, said she didn’t understand what had happened until she received the Sept. 9 letter. The delay was “extremely frustrating,” she said.

Eric Azumi, owner of Lark in the Morning, said that even though the board gave Maffei nearly four months to notify tenants, he wished his landlord had let him know about the contamination before he signed a lease in the building in April. “The toughest thing has been the relative lack of communication,” Azumi said. 

Because of Maffei Leasing’s subsequent compliance with testing and notification requirements, the board will not levy any penalties, officials said. 

A decades-old spill

The building, which stretches between Ninth and Tenth streets on the north side of Camelia, has been under environmental monitoring for decades in connection with a spill near the former loading dock by a laundry and dry cleaning supply company that operated on the site from 1978 to 1983, according to documentation from the city of Berkeley and the water quality control board. 

In March 2000, environmental testing detected elevated levels of PCE in soil and groundwater samples. Inhaling the chemical has been shown by the EPA to cause upper respiratory tract irritation, headaches, mood change and kidney dysfunction, with chronic exposure linked to more severe effects, including several types of cancer.

Although the chemical poses severe health risks, the levels detected reflect a slightly elevated risk of cancer only after decades of daily exposure, said Nathan King, a senior engineering geologist for the water board. “It’s a very conservative screening level.” He said exposure should not cause any immediate health concerns.

Between 2009 and 2015, the board used chemical treatments to treat the spill, but the efforts were ineffective. Although initial tests suggested the spill had not affected air quality in the building, more extensive air vapor sampling was taken on Dec. 10, 2020. 

An assessment of those samples released on Jan. 29 revealed unsafe levels of PCE. State environmental screening requirements allow two micrograms of PCE per cubic meter of air. Each of five samples taken throughout the building exceeded that limit, with readings 7.5 to 225 times higher than the allowable limit. 

Five air vapor samples (readings shown in green) were taken inside the 1001 Camelia St. building in December 2020. All five samples showed levels of PCE above the state limit of two micrograms per cubic meter of air. The readings in red show soil vapor levels, which pose less of a health hazard to building occupants. Credit: San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board

Maffei was notified of the water board’s report on Feb. 25. Company representative Janiele Maffei declined to answer questions about why it did not initially perform air quality sampling and why it took over six months for some tenants to be notified about the contamination. 

A second round of air quality readings taken in August show that although some PCE concentrations have dropped from December 2020, 19 of 21 samples still exceed state standards. The reading in Lark in the Morning is still 170 times higher than the allowable limit.

Air vapor readings taken in August. Credit: San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board

“The health and safety of our tenants is of the utmost importance to us,” Maffei wrote in a statement. “We are working with the agencies to mitigate any risk and to protect public health and safety. That is and will remain our priority.”

‘I should have known’

Eric Azumi, owner of Lark in the Morning, now minimizes the time he and his four employees spend in the store’s warehouse, where PCE concentrations are highest. If the air quality doesn’t improve, he’s considering moving. 

To navigate the potential risk from the air quality, Girls Garage has hired both an environmental lawyer and a consultant from the environmental firm Exponent. Having experts confirm the low immediate health effects posed by the air quality “relieves a lot of our worries,” said Pilloton-Lam. “But that doesn’t take away that feeling of, ‘I should have known this.’”

Jeffery Baker, a Berkeley resident whose 12-year-old daughter trains at Berkeley Ballet Theater for 10 hours per week, said he was “incensed” when he learned that the landlord delayed informing the studio about the contamination. But for the time being, Baker is still allowing her to attend. “I’m not sure it’s fair to the kids to cancel their activities,” he said. 

The building’s landlord, Maffei Leasing, LLC, has installed air scrubbers in instrument store Lark of the Morning and other tenant spaces. Credit: Jesse Kathan

Both the garage and Berkeley Ballet Theater are continuing to host classes and are keeping their doors open during business hours. Maffei has supplied air-filtration units throughout the building, Pilloton-Lam said, and outfitted some units with HVAC systems. 

To address the source of the hazardous vapors, the regional water board plans to use a state grant to fund an excavation of the former spill site to remove soil where PCE concentrations are highest. The grant will also fund the installation of a network of pipes beneath the building, which will act like a vacuum, sucking out hazardous vapors before they enter the space.

King expects the work will begin by the end of October. After the underground pipes are installed, the air quality will still be monitored for up to two years as the water board confirms the system is working. Addressing chemical contamination in the soil and groundwater will likely take several more years, King said.