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?"