Court Asked to Halt UC Research Over Safety Concern
Backed by state officials, a lawyer for a group of San Francisco residents on Monday asked the state Supreme Court to bar the University of California from conducting potentially hazardous biomedical research in their neighborhood.
The new and more conservative court, in its first review of the California Environmental Quality Act, was told that the university has failed to show it would adequately protect the neighborhood from emissions from toxic, carcinogenic and radioactive substances.
Further, UC should be required to fully explore alternative sites that may prove less dangerous, an attorney for the Laurel Heights Improvement Assn. said in arguments before the justices.
Range of Alternatives
“A range of reasonable alternatives must be discussed,” said the lawyer, Kathryn R. Devincenzi. “Here, nothing was discussed.”
Ethan P. Schulman, representing the UC Board of Regents, contended that the potential for any significant environmental risks had been eliminated and that in such circumstances, there was no need to consider alternative sites.
The research already has been conducted safely for years at UC San Francisco two miles away from the new site, Schulman said. “These activities have never been found to pose any risk to the community,” he said.
The case presents the new court with its initial opportunity to interpret and apply provisions of the act, a 28-year old landmark state law requiring environmental impact reports in advance of major projects in California. Generally, the court has applied the act broadly to protect the environment, winning praise from environmentalists and drawing criticism from developers.
Hint of Court View
The outcome of the UC case could provide an important first indication of how much information and analysis the new court will require in environmental impact reports in the future.
In an unusual move, the state attorney general’s office has entered the case in support of the residents’ group. Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, in a “friend of the court” brief, warned that a ruling in the university’s favor could undermine the goals of the act, allowing “great detriment” to the environment in subsequent cases.
The dispute arose after the university announced in 1986 that it intended to relocate its School of Pharmacy research facilities from the UCSF campus to a building it purchased in a residential neighborhood known as Laurel Heights, just south of the Presidio. The university filed an environmental impact report in connection with the move, revealing that the new site would be used in part for work involving toxic chemicals, carcinogens and radioactive substances.
After a public hearing, UC adopted several measures it said would protect against health dangers. But the neighborhood association went to court, contending that the university was failing to comply with the law by not providing enough information about the project, particularly its future uses.
Reversal on Appeal
A San Francisco Superior Court judge refused to block the relocation. But in July, a state Court of Appeal overturned that ruling, holding that the university had failed to fully explore alternative sites and to provide “substantial evidence” that any environmental effects from lab work would be insignificant.
The court barred any further research at the new site until a new report could be prepared. The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the university’s appeal and said that pending a ruling, UC could proceed with some lab work, provided radioactive materials were not brought onto the site.
In an hourlong hearing Monday, some court members expressed skepticism over the claim that the university should be required to list alternative sites, even if it could show its new facilities were safe.
“What purpose would that serve?” asked Justice Allen E. Broussard.
“The primary purpose of (environmental impact reports) is to give the public information they can use to advocate alternatives,” said Devincenzi. The list of alternatives, she said, need not be “endless,” but should include those that are “reasonable.”
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Craig C. Thompson, backing the neighborhood group, said that if the university were not required to consider alternatives, such a ruling “could cause problems” in enforcing the act’s protective provisions.
Schulman, arguing for the university, told the court that activities at the new site would be watched by various regulatory agencies to make sure emissions were not potentially harmful.