In early October 1988, about a month after grading began, some workers excavating the site smelled the odor of rotten eggs and began vomiting and experiencing headaches. Three were hospitalized, according to news reports. (One of the workers died thereafter, and ten months later his widow filed a wrongful-death suit. The city paid $8500 to settle the suit, according to a note in the case files.) An environmental consultant brought in from Scottsdale, Arizona, to investigate the incident concluded that workers had encountered a pocket of hydrogen sulfide gas. Although Woodward-Clyde’s 1983 study had not found this poison, workers’ symptoms matched many of its effects. The consultant recommended that workers be required to wear oxygen masks.
More trouble developed. This time it took the form of a reddish-orange seepage that appeared in the side wall of a ground cut at the level of the former water table. A field technician employed by the consulting firm collected liquid and soil samples. The results revealed elevated levels of pollutants: dichloroethene, a degreasing agent; tca, a common industrial solvent; and carbon tetrachloride, the carcinogen whose dumping spurred Woodward-Clyde’s 1983 report. The latter was found in a concentration more than 900 times the state’s maximum for drinking water.
“We’ve broken the seal on the tomb, and the curse has been released,” a San Diego Evening Tribune article in August 1989 quoted Michael Pallamary, a civil engineer who was chairman of a city panel seeking to clean up Mission Bay. The city ordered more testing of the surface water and sediments in the boat basin. Again Woodward-Clyde’s findings were reassuring. None of the pollutants detected in the surface water qualified for classification as hazardous waste, the firm announced. Delays continued to plague the project. Not until 1996 did the city open the boat-launch ramp — six years behind the original schedule.
Today South Shores Park has an eerie, unfinished look. You reach it by turning in to an access road off Sea World Drive. This leads to an asphalt parking lot studded with palm trees set in planters designed to keep roots away from whatever lies below. Big enough for 240 cars and trailers, the parking lot often holds no more than 2 or 3 vehicles. At the northwest corner of the lot, two restroom facilities, gray with blue-tile accents, stand like sentries overlooking an expanse of the white concrete ramp that could accommodate ten powerboats. Yet many mornings, there are none, nor can any human figure be seen on the beach.
The old landfill lies beneath the access road and parking lot, but according to 1999 maps of the park, part of it also extends under the graded dirt to the west of the lot. This stretch abuts the eastern edge of Sea World’s property, and official maps show it as a future parking site for the marine park; at times the breeze carries peppy voices of the park’s animal-show announcers here. On the eastern side of the asphalt lot, dirt covers the old dump. Ash-colored mulch has been spread over some of the ground, but other sections lie naked. Short, mean plants grow here.
A wide concrete pathway lies beyond this section, next to the water. Sometimes someone strolls or Rollerblades along it. The Mission Bay Park Plan calls for additions: an amphitheater, playgrounds, picnic facilities. But no money has been budgeted to build these. “It could sit there for some time without anything further happening,” one city official stated.
That’s good news to Jace Miller. A shipwright and aspiring novelist who recently moved to Imperial Beach from Ocean Beach, Miller, 56, lobbies for cleanup of the old landfill. He explains that he became interested after reading a 1995 article about the imminent opening of the South Shores Park boat basin. He recalls, “I thought it would be impossible for the site to be benign, because of its location in a public park, sandwiched between two bodies of water, and because of the large amounts of toxics that had been dumped there.” Miller says he started talking to the Sierra Club and Earth First and found, “No one knew about it. No one I talked to had ever heard about it. The general reaction was that it sounded pretty far-fetched. I began to get the impression that information about the dump had been kept from the public.”
Miller says he enlisted other volunteers, and his group (dubbed Mission Bay Park Toxic Cleanup) has been researching the history of the site. Miller says, “I think it’s a dangerous site and that the public should be warned about it.” He says many of the site studies appear to contain serious flaws.
Miller’s group believes that a disturbing error can be found in Woodward-Clyde’s 1983 study. One of the most important conclusions of that study was that the toxic wastes deposited in the Mission Bay landfill do not pose a human health hazard. “There are practically no exposure pathways to humans,” the report asserted.
The study’s authors explained that the groundwater at the site was too salty to be drinkable. “Although ingestion of bay water by swimmers can occur, the amount actually swallowed by a person is normally extremely small; poisoning could occur only if acutely toxic amounts…were present in the water,” they reasoned. Furthermore, the layers of dirt over the landfill appeared to be blocking the escape of any toxic gases.
Instead, the primary creatures at risk from landfill contamination “are the aquatic organisms inhabiting the San Diego River flood-control channel and Mission Bay,” the report stated. It conceded that “consumption of highly contaminated fish has caused serious human health problems, particularly in Japan.” The consultants looked at concentrations of toxic heavy metals found in the water and sediments of the flood-control channel and bay at sites near the landfill. In order to take into account the fact that heavy metals tend to “bioconcentrate” in the flesh of marine animals, the consultants multiplied the highest concentrations of those metals by two (the factor that they claim was recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency). Then they calculated how much of each of the metals would be consumed by a person eating 6.5 grams of fish a day (a little less than a quarter of an ounce, or roughly seven ounces of fish per month). When they compared this amount to the estimated safe consumption levels derived from drinking-water standards, they concluded that “no human health effects should result from consumption of fish inhabiting Mission Bay.”