East Village's most toxic dirt being trucked to Adelanto

Area bordered by 9th, 11th, Imperial, and Commercial Avenues was SDG&E site

As a biology student at the University of Colorado, Ken Rowland imagined becoming the next Jacques Cousteau, but a bout of seasickness on the way to Santa Catalina Island moored his career to land.

Rowland now specializes in cleaning sites where gas and electric utilities have operated and ridding the ground of cancer-causing chemicals. Although sifting through mounds of dirt and breaking up old concrete are not as glamorous nor as exotic as exploring the ocean's depths, the project manager for Sempra Energy is doing his share to improve the environment. He finds his current task of helping decontaminate soil in downtown San Diego for the Padres' proposed baseball stadium is also tainted with publicity and controversy.

During the next few months, Rowland expects to dig up as much as 75,000 tons of dirt in a two-block area bordered by 9th, 11th, Imperial, and Commercial Avenues. If that dirt were piled inside Qualcomm Stadium, it would measure about 11 feet high, calculated Harry Shinn, an engineer and mathematician in Twentynine Palms.

Rowland figures that about half the dirt, as much as 37,500 tons, will require cleaning. Although the soil has been tested extensively since 1995, it will be tested again as it is excavated and separated into clean and dirty piles, which are moistened and covered with tarps to reduce dust. "Some of the soil is obviously dirty," Rowland said. "We can segregate that right away."

Of the "dirty dirt," roughly half, or as much as 18,750 tons, is already being trucked to TPS Technologies' furnace in Adelanto, near Victorville. The other half will be burned across the street in a portable furnace supplied by American Remedial Technologies. Heating the dirt to 850 degrees Fahrenheit vaporizes organic materials and contaminants; the resulting gases are burned in another chamber at 1750 degrees Fahrenheit. The process, called thermal desorption, emits water and carbon dioxide if done properly. But Paula Forbis, co-director of the Environmental Health Coalition's Toxic-Free Neighborhoods Campaign, cautions, "Nothing burns completely clean. There will be some emissions.

"We have a great deal of concern for public health and safety. Thousands of people live and work in the East Village," Forbis said. "Increasing air emissions could have short-term effects of aggravating asthma and emphysema. Long term, they could cause cancer." Sempra's soil tests revealed unsafe levels of benzenes, a component of gasoline fuels; perchloroethylene or PCE, a solvent common to dry cleaners; lead, which can cause brain damage in children who eat it; and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, associated with diesel and fuel oil. Test results were negative for polychlorinated bifenals, or PCBs, a deadly chemical used in transformers. Although San Diego Gas & Electric had operated an electric generating station in East Village, Rowland wasn't necessarily surprised by the lack of PCBs. "We looked for it. It wasn't here."

Michael Shames, executive director of Utility Consumer Action Network in San Diego (UCAN), was skeptical that no PCBs turned up in the tests. "If there were a generating plant, I'd expect to find PCBs. At the time those plants were run, there was little appreciation for the dangers of transformer fluid. It was treated like the equivalent of oil, so it was spilled and inadequately cleaned."

Adding to the Environmental Health Coalition's concern about public safety is the regulatory history of American Remedial Technologies, which will burn dirt downtown.

In May, American Remedial Technologies paid $30,000 in penalties to the South Coast Air Quality Management District to settle eight law violations involving excess emissions and improper use of equipment at its headquarters facility in Lynwood. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to spend $25,000 on pollution-control equipment but ended up spending $130,000, according to a recent report. A pending violation, dated June 4, involves nuisance odors.

Rowland said he was aware of American Remedial Technologies' regulatory problems but took into account the company's recent improvements on hiring it as a contractor. Of the eight recently settled law violations, six date back to 1997, when the company had different owners and generated 153 complaints about odors. "American Remedial Technologies has wanted to do business with us for some time," Rowland said. "It's only been in the last year that we've been comfortable with them. They've been very open about their past problems."

Fred Miller, general manager of American Remedial Technologies, said the company's willingness to settle with regulators was not necessarily an indication of wrongdoing. Using the analogy of the average citizen paying a traffic violation, Miller said, sometimes it's easier and quicker to pay the fines and focus on daily operations. "We occasionally receive complaints about odors, but one of the problems in our business is, unlike air emissions, odors aren't quantifiable. And sometimes it's difficult to pinpoint the source. There's a roofing and tar shop across the street and a body shop that paints automobiles." Miller noted that the "mobile thermal desorption unit" that Sempra plans to use in East Village is different from the company's permanent plant in Lynwood. "With portable units you have better control. You have a better idea of what you're treating. There's been more testing."

Gloria Nickerson, a nearby business owner in Lynwood, isn't convinced of American Remedial Technologies' recent improvements. "There's a light film of dust on my car every single day. I don't have the luxury to open my doors or windows. The smell is difficult to describe. It's a heavy petroleum."

Staff members of the Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit organization in San Diego, don't oppose the idea of cleaning up more than a century of industrial waste in East Village. They just question some of the methods used, the choice of American Remedial Technologies, and the lack of information about nearby properties that will also be cleaned for the Padres. The coalition objects to the utility's efforts to sterilize soil in a portable furnace downtown. On Tuesday, the coalition appealed a permit that allows the furnace to be used at 114 Tenth Avenue near several thousand East Village residents, workers, small-business owners, and the homeless.

Sempra stands out among its East Village neighbors to be displaced by the Padres' $411 million stadium. While most of the 60 affected property owners are being forced into environmental cleanup by the city's redevelopment agency, which is plotting to buy or seize land for the ballpark, Sempra is doing so voluntarily.

In 1995, long before plans for a new stadium surfaced, the utility began preparing its property -- the site of a gas-manufacturing plant, a power station, and other operations -- for new land uses and a possible sale. It tested soil and designed remediation at a time when the city planned to convert the mostly industrial East Village to a residential neighborhood. The Padres' demand for a downtown ballpark is now creating a new commercial district. In March Sempra agreed to sell 11.5 acres to the team's developers. The $24 million purchase price excludes the $6 million the utility is spending on decontamination. Much of that pays Sempra's environmental contractors, such as ENV America in Irvine, an excavation specialist, and IT Group, an engineering, design, and testing firm in San Diego.

Cleaning a site for residential use -- an option the Environmental Health Coalition prefers -- results in a higher standard of clean vs. commercial purposes. But property owners and developers usually limit remediation to what the law requires, which is for the land's immediate future use. The projected life span of the new stadium is 25 to 30 years, according to Padres officials' discussions with local historic preservationists.

Rowland said he didn't know whether the utility had previously designed its remediation for residential standards. He was appointed to oversee the utility's cleanup in East Village last year, after Sempra was created by the merger of Pacific Enterprises and Enova Corp., which owns San Diego Gas & Electric. Barring any unforeseen pockets of pollution, Sempra is undertaking the biggest and most expensive remediation project. Occupying one-third of the new ballpark district, the utility's land contains concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons that exceed levels deemed safe by the government for construction and commercial workers. Whether a material meets regulators' definitions for "hazardous" depends on the amount, measured in parts per million, and future use of the site. "The dosage is what makes the poison," Rowland said. "Anything in excess [of regulatory levels] is the danger."

Sempra rejected the coalition's recent requests to treat all of its soil elsewhere. "We'd like to keep trucks off the roads as much as possible," Rowland said. "We feel it's more effective to treat soil here." Aware of the dangers of transporting potentially hazardous materials, the coalition prefers leaving the soil in place and injecting air or insects to do the cleansing; such "bioremediation" methods take longer but reduce risk.

Sempra probably would have incinerated all of its dirt downtown but for a mishap. When the utility dismantled an above-ground storage tank in late 1997, naphthalene fumes caused some of the 875 county and transportation workers in the nearby Trolley Tower to complain. Ironically, employees of the Department of Environmental Health work in that building too. On some mornings, Jim Schuck, an environmental health specialist, goes to the top of the parking garage to observe the activity at Sempra's earth mounds. He remembers the accidental release of naphthalene into the atmosphere. "We're the ones who complained," Schuck joked. Although it is a harmless substance, even low amounts of naphthalene create an intense odor similar to mothballs.

To avoid repeating that incident, Sempra is conducting some of its work at night, after office hours, when temperatures are cooler and naphthalene is less likely to vaporize. An estimated 18,750 tons of naphthalene-laced soil is being trucked to TPS Technologies in Adelanto. The utility expects to receive an equivalent amount of clean soil -- not necessarily the same soil -- back from TPS to refill the hole. TPS has maintained a clean record in recent years; its excess emissions date back to 1995 and 1996, when it paid $18,500 in fines for improper use of equipment.

Sempra's strategy of treating the most offensive soil -- in terms of odor -- elsewhere may not reduce complaints. Manal Semaan, a cashier at Pacific Star Deli inside the Trolley Tower, said she is concerned about the environmental cleanup. "Today there is such a bad smell. It's a chemical smell," she said on Friday. She doubts whether Sempra's activities will hurt the delicatessen's business, Semaan said, but the excavation already affects her surroundings.

The Environmental Health Coalition's concern about American Remedial Technologies' excess past emissions prompted the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District to check the company's compliance history, a precaution the district has rarely, if ever, taken before issuing permits, said Joe Yager, a senior air-pollution control engineer. "To my knowledge, this is the first time this issue has been brought up." Yager said he actually had to check the rules to find out whether he could research American Remedial Technologies' track record. Forbis said, "The Air Pollution Control District should check compliance history of companies coming here from out of town. That should be a basic step. They should want to know whether a company creating air emissions here has been a bad actor in another district."

Nonetheless, two weeks ago, Yager gave American Remedial Technologies a construction permit for a thermal desorption unit, which is tubular and measures 50 feet by 100 feet. After more components arrive this week, the mobile incinerator will be assembled and tested. The permit allows the company to operate the portable furnace for a year to test emissions, but a more permanent, operational permit is expected within two weeks. Because appeals of permits are so rare, neither Yager, Rowland, nor Forbis knew whether the appeal would delay or otherwise affect Sempra's cleanup.

A greater concern beyond the specifics of Sempra's remediation plan, Forbis said, is the cumulative effect of other cleanup projects throughout the East Village. The utility is simply the largest, but best known, piece of the neighborhood's environmental puzzle. "Somewhere between 50 and 75 underground storage tanks need to be removed from the area. Every time there's a removal of an underground storage tank, there's the risk of air pollution. What happens if they're all removed at once?"

Forbis was among several coalition staff members who blasted the environmental impact report's failure to address the issue of 60 property owners cleaning their properties for the Padres' proposed ballpark. "The EIR was almost silent on the issue of remediation. No one is analyzing the total air pollution impact from this series of cleanups."

Estimates for total air emissions and other impacts won't be available for some time, if at all. Only 20, or one-third, of the affected landholders have completed their Phase II environmental assessment reports, which typically include test results for such items as lead paint, asbestos, metals, spilled fuels, and other potentially harmful substances. The remaining reports are expected by November.

Sempra's activities alone represent one of San Diego County's largest cleanup projects involving excavation, say officials for the county's Department of Environmental Health. An equal or greater amount of excavation may occur just to create a level baseball field, said Kevin Heaton, a hydrogeologist for the department, but that volume of dirt -- another 11-foot pile inside Qualcomm Stadium -- is expected to yield few toxins relative to the utility's parcels.

The Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), San Diego's redevelopment agency, and its consultant, Environmental Business Solutions, are orchestrating the evaluation, testing, and remediation of 77 parcels for the Padres. The agency is paying its consultant $886,614 but plans to recoup much of that cost from the affected property owners.

Last September -- before voters approved the concept of a new stadium -- Centre City Development Corporation applied as "responsible party" for the cleanup and asked the California Department of Toxic Substance Control to designate San Diego County's Department of Environmental Health to be the lead agency to oversee the operation. "Responsible party" is usually construed to mean landowner, but the redevelopment agency has not yet acquired those 77 parcels. The appointment of a lead agency is part of a state program called "the site designation process" intended to expedite large remediation projects involving multiple government entities. Although the program dates back to 1994, it is considered a pilot, according to the state's website on the Internet, but state officials last week were unable to confirm whether the program remains experimental. San Diego County's Department of Environmental Health has led seven such projects -- more than any other local agency. Sempra and its 12 parcels are included in the redevelopment agency's remediation project.

Edward Plant, president of San Diego Refrigerated Services, is typical of business owners being coerced into environmental cleanup by Centre City Development Corporation. The city has already condemned Plant's cold-storage plant because he refused to accept its offer of $8.1 million, which he says falls short of the $15 million he needs to rebuild the business elsewhere. Since then, the redevelopment agency has reduced its offer to $6.4 million to cover the costs of environmental evaluation, testing, and cleanup. "They arbitrarily deducted $1.6 million off my price, and we have no idea what that's for. We've asked for the Phase I [environmental] assessment and copies of things, and they haven't provided it. I'm disappointed in the CCDC." Plant has already spent $17,000 to remove one underground storage tank, and he says the city is trying to make him responsible for decontamination under Imperial Avenue, which separates his two buildings. "The CCDC is trying to shed everything it can for somebody else."

Plant's lawyer, Rhonda Thompson, thinks forced cleanups of condemned properties could form the basis of a constitutional challenge. "It's horribly unfair," she said. "The city is forcing an unwilling seller to clean the property. They've taken away the right to negotiate. In the open market Ed could sell his business as is and get more money."

Not every property owner is as problematic as Plant, and some are happily cooperating with the city. Sempra's years of planning set it apart.

Although the coalition questioned the San Diego Air Pollution Control District for not hosting a public hearing about Sempra's use of an incinerator downtown, that wasn't required, according to Yager. "The district processes about 1500 applications a year and issues about 1000 permits," he said. "This particular project did not require a public comment period. We're following our rules." As lead agency, the Department of Environmental Health held hearings during the summer that were missed by coalition staffers, who aren't completely familiar with the state's "site designation process." Sempra alerted about 450 East Village residents, business owners, other employers, and organizations within one-quarter of a mile.

Rowland is disappointed by the coalition's criticisms of Sempra's plans to improve its East Village property and purge it of carcinogens. "We've put a lot of thought into this, trying to control the risk to the community and the greater population." Remediation projects do not require environmental impact reports but rather generate "remedial action work plans" and statements of "negative declaration."

Ed Van Herik, a Sempra spokesman, said those statements mean "what we're doing on the land won't harm it. A cleanup almost always leaves the land in better shape than when we started. Sometimes doing something good for the community gets lost in the minutiae of environmental issues." Sempra's cleanup wouldn't be as troubling, Forbis said, if it weren't for the other potentially hazardous materials of its neighbors. "This part of town has more than its share of industrial pollution. Knowing that other cleanups will be occurring, adding an incinerator to this mix doesn't seem like good judgment."

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