How Safe Is Your Soil? 

Urban farming has become hugely popular in the East Bay, but lead and other heavy metals in the soil pose potential health risks. Meanwhile, there's little consensus on what to do about it.

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The complexity of the issue poses a challenge for the City of Oakland. As it revises its laws around urban agricultural this summer and fall, it bears a responsibility to address soil contamination — even if the push is toward less, not more intrusion in the lives of urban farmers.

Oakland's existing zoning regulations around urban agriculture were established in 1965, a time when farming was less welcome in the urban environment. Until two months ago, growing produce for sale at a private residence was not permitted.

Certain activities and zoning classes still require a costly conditional use permit. But the pending revisions, hastened by the uproar surrounding the citing of Novella Carpenter's Ghost Town Farms for operating without a permit earlier this year, should both clarify the regulations and loosen the reigns.

Erik Angstadt, deputy director of planning and zoning, said that the city is looking to allow as much urban agriculture activity as possible, reducing the need for permits, oversight, and special conditions — as well as related fees. While this may cause urban farmers to rejoice, it also limits the city's ability to mandate or otherwise oversee soil testing and remediation. "For the small-scale stuff, we're trying to get away from any sort of permit," Angstadt said. "The good side is that you're permitting people to do it, but the bad side is that you're losing your ability to control it."

A series of public meetings continuing through October, plus input from various city committees and the Oakland City Council, will fine-tune the planning department's recommendations. But it's uncertain at this point how much, if it all, the issue of soil contamination will be addressed beyond a basic educational message directed at the backyard gardener.

The planning department is likely to recommend permits and may propose some regulatory controls for soil testing with large-scale commercial uses, Angstadt said. A community garden on a city-owned lot may still need a conditional use permit, and while soil testing and remediation is not currently required in such cases, it's possible that will change.

Yet in the rare instance where vegetables are grown on a small residential or non-commercial lot in soil that is toxic and then sold to the public, the city is likely to be powerless. Without a permit, there's no mechanism for enforcement.

Lead is one of the most common contaminants in the country, particularly in urban areas, and other cities are grappling with the same issues as Oakland. Heather Wooten, a member of the Oakland Food Policy Council and an urban planner who has consulted with cities from coast to coast on urban agriculture policies and zoning, said each jurisdiction has to decide how to deal with soil pollution."Cities don't want to incur liability from allowing people to grow, eat, and sell food and possibly getting contamination," she said. Yet their solutions vary widely.

Chicago's plan mandates the use of raised beds for all gardens on city-owned land. Baltimore's is even more strict, requiring community gardeners on both public and private land to file soil testing results and remediation plans. Seattle recommends but doesn't require soil testing, while San Francisco's policy, passed in April, allows anything grown on less than an acre, with no controls for soil contamination whatsoever.

Berkeley is hot on Oakland's heels and may begin addressing urban agriculture as soon as next month. Last October, the Berkeley City Council directed the planning commission to develop a policy allowing home-based businesses to sell garden produce in Berkeley's residential neighborhoods. The issue will go before the planning commission at a public meeting in September, said staffer Jordan Harrison. The issue of soil contamination has played into discussions to date, but no solutions are forthcoming.

Ultimately, Wooten recommends a flexible approach. "The policy needs to acknowledge that this is an issue, and cue people to pay attention to it," rather than guiding them down a single path, she said. In addition to playing an active role in education, cities could cover the cost of soil testing for anyone who requests it. Further, they could require testing only on public sites and prioritize public land for community farms.

All this discussion of city governments mandating soil tests leaves City Slicker Farms' Barbara Finnin a bit uneasy. She'd rather not discourage anyone from embracing urban farming, and fears that excessive regulations would do just that. "I don't want to have a huge scare thing where nobody is growing food," she said. "When it gets into mandating things, that gets into fees and all these kinds of things" — costs that her organization's clients in West Oakland probably can't afford.

"We really want to be safe, but how do we do it so that we're not putting up barriers?" In a perfect world, she said, all urban gardeners would follow best practices around testing and remediation without city oversight, ideally supported by a streamlined and accessible facility providing free testing to residents.

Alameda County offers a free garden soil lead test kit and remediation grants in conjunction with a home consultation to owners of pre-1978 residential properties in the cities of Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland. The University of Massachusetts, meanwhile, provides low-cost soil testing for $10 and up, a service that many East Bay urban farmers have taken advantage of, including City Slicker Farms and the 39th Street neighbors. It's likely the nation's cheapest mail-away test, and according to interim director Tracy Allen processed 18,000 samples last year — nearly double its figure from a decade ago. Every time the economy takes a dip, she said, soil tests take off.

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