Between July 1952 and December 1959, the City of San Diego operated a landfill in Mission Bay Park between Sea World and Interstate 5. For ten hours a day, seven days a week, ity trucks hauled garbage to the 115-acre site — the sort of refuse you can see being dumped into the Miramar landfill. But during its operation, the Mission Bay landfill served as receiving grounds for millions of gallons of industrial wastes being produced by San Diego’s aerospace industry. In some cases, these toxic substances were buried in steel drums. Other times they were poured into unlined holes 15 to 20 feet deep, below the level of the groundwater.
It is not possible to list the hazardous substances the city allowed to be dumped there. No cleanup of the Mission Bay landfill has been conducted. If anyone kept records of what substances companies were discarding there, the files have disappeared. After the permanent closure of the landfill in 1959, the memory of the toxic dumping seemed to vanish. In 1981, in response to a media report that a local firm might have deposited toxic materials at the landfill during the mid-1950s, Jim Gutzmer, the deputy director of the city’s Solid Waste Division, responded (in a letter to a staffer at the local water quality control board), “The site was never knowingly used for toxic waste disposal.… We have no reason to believe any illegal dumping of toxic wastes took place at the site.”
Within the next few months, Gutzmer apparently found a report that offered reason to believe that toxics had been dumped there. Written in February 1957 by the assistant chief plant engineer for Convair, the report asserted that a majority of the aerospace manufacturer’s “process solutions” were being hauled and dumped “into the sanitary fill in the Mission Bay area.” (The first laws regulating toxic-waste disposal were not enacted until the 1970s.) The plant engineer estimated that for 1957 through 1962 those deposits would amount to some 200,000 gallons annually of such substances as chromic, hydrofluoric, nitric, sulfuric, and hydrochloric acids; alkaline solutions; and paint and oily wastes.
Gutzmer further searched the records and (according to an October 1981 internal memo on file at the Regional Water Quality Control Board) found another disturbing document, a 1959 letter written by a local resident complaining about “objectionable practices being conducted at the Mission Bay location.” This resident reported, “I have seen loads of dead animals being ground up by a tractor and powerful acids being disposed of at this sanitary landfill. The fill is not covered at all times, and the access roads and surrounding area are littered with debris and dust.” According to the memo, Gutzmer planned to meet with then–City Manager Ray Blair and contact state health officials to discuss these findings. The 1981 memo also stated that a study would be proposed to sample the landfill for the hazardous wastes Convair had reported dumping.
But amnesia appears to have set in again. By the summer of 1983, no such research had been conducted. The city was concentrating on development on the Mission Bay site of what was to be one of the biggest hotels in San Diego County. Known as the Ramada Renaissance Resort, the project was to include 638 rooms, tennis courts, swimming pools, racquetball courts, restaurants, and banquet rooms. An adjoining 20-acre, $1.4 million public park was planned. Revenues to the city were predicted to be more than a million dollars a year.
One week before Ramada was due to sign the lease, a news announcement brought development plans to a halt. On July 20, 1983, a local television station reported the revelations of an anonymous source who claimed to have been a truck driver during the 1950s. According to subsequent newspaper reports, the source said he had dumped hundreds of barrels of the carcinogen carbon tetrachloride at the Mission Bay landfill. This wasn’t the first time someone had linked carbon tetrachloride to the old dump. An employee in the San Diego office of the state’s Abandoned Site Project had received a tip about it after the office had opened in September 1982, according to an internal state government memo written in August 1983. The state employee had met with officials from the City of San Diego as well as from the county and had “expressed his concern that sampling should be done before there was any development of the area.” But “No action was taken,” according to the August 1983 memo.
With the televised report of the truck driver’s allegations, pandemonium erupted. Ramada announced that construction plans would be put on hold until the hotel chain could be convinced that the property was safe. Pressed by journalists, Gutzmer stated that the city had only become aware of the Convair letter in April 1983. “That was the first time…the city was made aware that industrial wastes had been mixed with household wastes,” the San Diego Union quoted him as saying on July 24. Gutzmer implied that officials had no knowledge of the carbon tetrachloride dumping until the TV news report.
Then–City Councilman Mike Gotch (whose district included Mission Bay) told reporters that he had learned about the bay’s toxic history from the TV news report. “If city staff knew it 90 days ago, why didn’t members of the media know?” Gotch demanded, according to a July 26, 1983, article in the San Diego Union, apparently ignorant of the fact that city, state, and water-board officials had known about the Convair report two years before the news became public. Gotch’s voice was among those that called for a study of the property.
In order to salvage the hotel-development project, city officials announced that they wanted to have that study completed in less than 60 days. The city council approved funding for the inquiry (which cost about $300,000), and the city handpicked the consulting firm to do the work. The council waived the consultant-selection process “because of the urgency,” City Manager Ray Blair explained to a competing firm.