Chosen to conduct the study was Woodward-Clyde Consultants, a geophysical and environmental firm with experience in city-funded projects. Woodward-Clyde had done at least two previous studies for the city at the Ramada project site. Early in 1980 the consulting firm had dug test pits in an effort to define the boundaries and composition of the old dump. (The dump had been covered with material dredged up when Mission Bay was being created between 1960 and 1962.) Woodward-Clyde had concluded in a 1980 letter to the city that the property was “suitable for development” but had cautioned, “Special treatment of near-surface soils and underlying trash fill areas may be necessary.…”
Evidently, Woodward-Clyde had not tested for toxic wastes in 1980, but the 1983 study was to make up for that. The study was to ascertain whether any hazardous materials were present at or near the landfill, and, if so, what their concentrations were. Woodward-Clyde proposed to collect groundwater from 20 wells to be drilled on and near the landfill site. Cover soil, landfill material, and underlying alluvium extracted from 21 boring sites would be scrutinized, and gases from 10 wells would be examined. Another consulting firm, Science Applications, Inc., would study surface water and sediment from Mission Bay and the San Diego River flood-control channel, two bodies of water that adjoin the landfill to the north and south. Woodward-Clyde was to assess whether any remedial measures or further field research was necessary.
The city asked the county and state health-services departments to review the proposed study, and officials from both pronounced it adequate. Sample collection began in late August and early September 1983. Woodward-Clyde also began burrowing into old files. Documents from those files indicated that the toxic waste being dumped into the Mission Bay landfill in the 1950s exceeded Convair’s (1957) estimate of 200,000 gallons a year. One report attached to a 1958 letter from the superintendent of the city’s sewerage division to the city manager estimated that four companies (Convair, Ryan, Rohr, and Astronautics) each year were generating 792,000 gallons of chromic, hydrofluoric, nitric, sulfuric, and hydrochloric acids; dichromate; cyanide; and paint and oil wastes. Other projections from this period refer to the need to dispose of at least one million gallons a year of industrial wastes. Contemporaneous documents state that some substances were going into the city sewers and the sea, as well as being dumped at the sites where they were generated or trucked to disposal facilities in the North County or Los Angeles. But the Mission Bay landfill received most of the poisonous wastes, according to the reports; several documents describe the facility as San Diego’s only Class I landfill. (A Class I landfill is approved to receive toxic wastes.)
Woodward-Clyde released its study results on November 17, 1983. Contradicting documents in their appendix, the consultants stated — without any explanation — that “the total volume of hazardous waste being generated in San Diego during the late 1950s was less than 400,000 gallons/year.” If three-quarters of this amount went into the Mission Bay landfill over its seven and a third years of operation, then the old dump would have received 2.2 million gallons of toxic waste, they concluded. (Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in Falls Church, Virginia, when contacted for this article, stated that “Most of the chemicals that are dumped in these landfills pretty much stay undegraded in the ground for tens and even hundreds of years.”)
Magnetic and electromagnetic surveys revealed that the site harbored perhaps 5000 pounds of metal per acre, most of it at or below the water table. This confirmed old eyewitness accounts that metal barrels of industrial wastes had been buried there. “At those depths [15 to 20 feet below the surface] most metallic drums or barrels should corrode to release their contents in less than ten years,” the report said. Woodward-Clyde used the results of the magnetic surveys to decide where to bore for samples. But rather than choosing places where the most metal appeared to be concentrated, the consultants selected areas with “only moderate probabilities of containing barrels or barrel residues,” according to the report. This was done “in order to limit the potential for rupturing an intact barrel during the field investigation.” Even so, the subsequent chemical analyses found more than 60 Environmental Protection Agency “priority pollutants” on the property, including 12 heavy metals (elements such as mercury and arsenic), 38 organic compounds such as acetone and carbon tetrachloride, and 12 pesticides.
Despite this, Woodward-Clyde reassured the city that the resort development could proceed. The highest concentrations of pollutants found in the study “are low,” the report announced, “and do not exceed existing California State or Federal criteria for the identification of hazardous waste.” The low concentrations coupled with “the low potential for their migration, and the few pathways for human exposure” meant that “the landfill wastes do not pose a significant health hazard to humans.” Semiannual testing of the bay and flood-control-channel waters adjacent to the landfill should continue “for an indefinite period,” they recommended, and they warned that if development proceeded, landfill gases might be released. These would need to be collected and disposed of. But no significant cleanup was necessary, according to Woodward-Clyde.
The Ramada development never got built. Asked about the project’s history, Bonnie Contreras, a staff member in the city’s Economic Development Division who worked on the development plans, said she couldn’t remember what killed the project. “It seems to me that it was either the financing or just the partnership fell apart.” Reminded of the toxic history of the site that emerged in 1983, Contreras amended her recollection: “I’m beginning to think or recall that maybe there were just so many problems with the site that the deal fell apart.”
In 1988 the city began carrying out other plans for the property (dubbed by then “South Shores Park”). The first, $4.5 million phase of these plans involved carving out a nine-acre cove north of the landfill. This was to serve as a boat-launching basin, and next to it a ten-lane boat ramp was to be constructed. Other improvements included a 16-acre parking lot, a public beach situated across the lagoon from the boat ramp, two boarding docks, and restroom facilities. Apprised of the city’s plans, an engineer from the Regional Water Quality Control Board office had expressed concern to the city in a letter dated June 5, 1987, that excavation might “result in the disruption of the landfill cover and/or involve excavation and exposure of landfill waste materials.” But Woodward-Clyde (once again the city’s consultant) responded that a 50-foot buffer zone would be maintained between the boat basin and the boundaries of the old landfill. Furthermore, an earthen berm would separate the waters of the bay from the boat basin until the excavation was complete.