part 6: toxic legacy

The Last Flower Children Guard San Francisco’s Most Secret Garden


+ go back to part 5

Of course not everyone believes the greenhouse revival is a good idea, or good business, even if the Garibaldis let it happen.

“It wouldn’t be profitable,” said Angelo Stagnaro, the SF Flower Growers Association president. “It wouldn’t pay. That place there, in order to even get it ready to grow anything it would cost you a fortune for demolition for one thing. The whole thing would have to be sifted for glass. There’s so much broken glass that’s fallen into the earth there it would be impossible to grow anything as it is.”

Bonnie Bridges, who beside being one of the nursery’s neighbors is an architect who designed Flora Grubb Gardens on Jerrold Avenue in the Bayview, said the building itself for a properly green high-density agriculture site is a more intensive architectural project than even a high-density housing project. She cited requirements for site analysis, figuring out sun exposure and drainage, a longer planning process for developing a sustainable site plan and the difficulty of integrating sustainable heating and cooling technology, or effective water catchment.

“It’s going to require more than just agricultural production and selling of produce to generate a sustainable revenue stream,” Bridges said.

And there is still one more reason rehabilitating the nursery might be more trouble than it’s worth: a likelihood of pesticide contamination. Many people guessed this is the real cause the Garibaldis have been reluctant to turn over the land — for a fear of liability and toxic remediation.

There are no available records showing what pesticides the Garibaldis used at University Mound Nursery during its run of operation. San Francisco’s Agriculture Commission used to be its own agency, said Miguel Monroy, the agriculture commissioner, and kept inspection forms and pesticides use records dating back to the 1960s. But when County Ag merged with the Department of Health and Safety six years ago, the new offices had significantly less space. Staff got cut from 14 to 8. “They threw a lot of stuff away,” Monroy said.

According to a California Department of Toxic Substances Control soil-testing guide, arsenic was used commonly in agricultural pest control until 1950. After that came organochlorine pesticides like DDT, toxaphene and dieldrin.

“Most other classes of pesticides have relatively short half-lives and have not been found in the agricultural fields,” the DTSC report says. “OCPs (DDT) are biopersistent and bioaccumulate in the environment.” The guide also warns of residual heavy metals left behind by copper compounds used as fungicides.

One of the county agriculture inspectors, Bill Copenheaver, remembers witnessing a pesticide application at the nursery many years ago. “I can’t remember what it was,” Copenheaver said, but he knows it was the University Mound greenhouse because he remembers Steve Garibaldi, the roses, and the way the pesticide was applied from the central irrigation system. “I was new then. Just filling-in in the pesticides inspection stuff. That wasn’t my duty.”

Angelo Stagnaro confirmed that DDT was used by almost all local flower growers in the 1950s and ’60s. “DDT was a good killer,” Stagnaro said, “but it killed everything.”

“They all used pesticides. DDT, an array of pesticides, fungicides, etc.,” said Franco Mancini.

However, the SFPUC’s watershed report about using the greenhouse site for bioswale lists “Soil Contamination: None.” But the report does not say what kind of tests were done to reach that determination.

In any case, both the California Department of Real Estate and the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection insist there are no regulations requiring pesticide cleanup in a property transaction — only disclosure. So this hangup may be just another misapprehension fueled by the Garibaldis’ silence.

As for what contamination means for a prospective urban farm: “Any greenhouse in there would have to be on raised beds, I’m guessing. But there are a lot of things in soils that are pretty funky,” Eric Smith said. “A lot of gardens do things in raised beds, just to not take any chances. These impacts on the community and what it takes to bring it back to life: that’s part of the discussion.”

Tony Kelly said in some sense it’s the same as a former gas station site. “There would have to be some sort of diagnosis. You have to treat it essentially as a brownfield, which we certainly have our share of in District 10 because of all the industrial sites,” Kelly said. “It does make development a little more problematic, but it’s not any kind of dealbreaker.”

Chris Burley, who at Hayes Valley Farm grows vegetables on top of years of highway runoff, said restoring hazardous soil is as simple as introducing organic matter: “Say it with me, Ommmmmmmmmmmm.”

continue to part 7 +

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