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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.

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