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.
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.
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.”
That statement apparently assuaged concerns of government regulators who read the Woodward-Clyde report 17 years ago. But Miller’s group took a hard look at the analysis and the data upon which it was based. Woodward-Clyde didn’t gather that data; another local consulting firm called Science Applications, Inc., collected sediment and surface-water samples from the bay and the flood-control channel. Science Applications wrote a report of its findings (released in October 1983) and concluded that overall the waters of Mission Bay were “quite clean relative to priority pollutants,” approximating the quality of open ocean water (“except for slightly increased levels of mercury”). When it came to sediments in the bay and channel, however, Science Applications stated that “there should be cause for concern.” The consulting firm found more zinc, thallium, lead, nickel, and beryllium in the Mission Bay sediments than reported for the polluted New York Bight. The average level of mercury in Mission Bay was greater than that of the New York Bight or the Persian Gulf. And the levels were highest at the two collecting stations on either side of the landfill, making it suspect, in Science Applications’ judgment, as “a probable source of metals.”
Woodward-Clyde had based its reassuring statements about the Mission Bay fish consumption upon Science Applications’ sediment data. How could this be? Miller and his associates noted that one of the tables in the Woodward-Clyde report did contain the same raw data that Science Applications had collected and reported. However, in the section where Woodward-Clyde analyzed the human health risks, the consultants had created another, more selective table. This table — the one most readers would peruse — is curious. It correctly states the amount of mercury that Science Applications found. But it understates the amount of four other heavy metals found in the sediments by a factor of a thousand. In other words, instead of 133 milligrams of lead per kilogram of sediment (the amount found by Science Applications in the flood-channel collecting station), Woodward-Clyde reported that only .133 milligrams had been found. Instead of 29 milligrams per kilogram of arsenic, Woodward-Clyde based its metal-consumption analysis upon an arsenic concentration of .029 milligrams per kilogram. The table does not report findings for eight other heavy metals identified by Science Applications.
When Miller and his associates reworked Woodward-Clyde’s analysis based upon the heavy-metal concentrations found by Science Applications, they came up with the following estimates: Someone who eats seven ounces per month of fish caught next to the landfill would be getting 13 times the amount of lead considered safe for consumption in drinking water. They would be consuming twice the amount of arsenic, 7 times the amount of beryllium, 3.65 times the amount of chromium, 6.7 times the amount of copper, and 25 times the amount of thallium allowed by drinking-water standards.
None of the authors of the Woodward-Clyde study remain with the firm, which was sold about two years ago and is now known by the name urs. However, David Marx, current manager of the office’s Environmental Management Division, knows about the Mission Bay landfill. In 1983 Marx worked for the San Diego County health department. He read the Woodward-Clyde report when it was published and agreed to answer my questions about the report. Asked if Woodward-Clyde erred in representing the tables relating to heavy-metal concentrations, he said, “I really don’t know how to answer that.… There may be an issue here. There may not be an issue.” Further study of data and worksheets used by Woodward-Clyde might yield an explanation, he suggested. But before spending time and money to determine if explanatory data exists, “We would really need to hear from the city, who was our client in this particular project.”
Robert Ferrier, deputy director of the city’s Refuse Disposal Division, is the city employee who today bears responsibility for the Mission Bay landfill. Asked whether Woodward-Clyde’s table was in error, he said, “Perhaps. Perhaps not. There’s no reason to assume sai is right, any more than there is that Woodward-Clyde is.” When reminded that Science Applications collected the data, Ferrier responded, “Oh, I understand that.… Well, I’m not saying I would trust one more than the other. That’s all I’m saying. I mean, just because somebody makes a recommendation, if that was the only recommendation at one point in time, my understanding is it’s not. That was their recommendation at that time, but I haven’t seen it substantiated by anybody else since.”
Science Applications recommended further investigation into the heavy metals in fish living near the landfill. In its 1983 report, the consulting firm stated that a bottom-feeding fish should be “carefully selected so as to represent a worst-case situation.… The tissue to be analyzed should include the edible portions of the fish in order to establish a link between the fish and the humans.” But such testing has never been done, according to Greg Peters, staff member of the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Each year the water board gets money to test fish caught at about eight stations, Peters says. The closest station from which fish have been collected is “right downstream of Fashion Valley Road, which is maybe a mile and a half, two miles, upstream. This really wouldn’t reflect what the landfill could possibly be contributing,” he says. Fish have been collected from Tecolote Creek, upstream from where it enters Mission Bay. “So there again, we don’t have any data on the possible influence of material in the landfill.” Peters says the problem with analyzing fish caught near the San Diego River mouth is that “if you find a fish that has somewhat elevated levels [of a pollutant], you’re not sure where it got it. Especially if it’s a fish that also frequents the ocean and comes into that particular area where you caught him.”
The landfill lobbying group says although the fish-toxicity table appears to be one of the most egregious errors in the 1983 study, other aspects of it trouble them too. Miller believes (based on the documents in the Woodward-Clyde report’s appendix) that the consultants understated the toxic wastes deposited in the Mission Bay landfill. Miller thinks the report’s statement that “Overall, no unusually large concentrations of heavy metals or hazardous organic chemicals were found in the landfill waste” is misleading. “I mean, we know that millions of gallons of toxic materials were dumped there. So where did they go?”
Miller says independent tests for cyanide in the soil and waste materials at the Mission Bay landfill cast doubt on Woodward-Clyde’s 1983 testing. Although Woodward-Clyde reported it had failed to detect cyanide, Miller discovered an analysis conducted in the fall of 1983 by the California Department of Health Services. The state lab found cyanide in all samples from this site that it tested, with concentrations ranging from 10 to 35 parts per million.
Marx, the one-time county employee who works for urs (formerly Woodward-Clyde), downplayed the discrepancy. “This may just be a lab thing,” he stated. If one set of tests had shown 10 parts per million and the other 3000 parts per million, “then I’d think there would be a scratch-your-head-and-really-look-at-this-a-lot-harder issue,” he said.
Marx says his “overriding concern” with Woodward-Clyde’s 1983 report was the “big-picture” question of whether hotel development could proceed. Miller has come to share this view and believes that the city’s commitment to the project colored Woodward-Clyde’s study. He argues that this bias is apparent throughout the report. Miller thinks the behavior of the city and Woodward-Clyde after the release of the study shows that something other than public-health concerns were uppermost in their minds.
The study results went to the state Department of Health Services in Sacramento, and officials there reviewed Woodward-Clyde’s conclusions. On January 10, 1984, Thomas Bailey, a chief in the Toxic Substances Control Division, wrote a letter summarizing the state’s response. Bailey pointed out that Woodward-Clyde had used criteria for hazardous waste that were not intended “for the purpose of assessing possible effects of long-term exposure.” Furthermore, some of the chemicals found in the study “are of concern even at relatively low concentrations,” Bailey declared in the letter. The division recommended several follow-up steps: a notice in the deed to inform future owners “of the presence of toxic chemical substances on the property”; and a ban on construction of “residences, schools, hospitals, day-care centers, or any other permanently occupied human habitation” and “permanent occupants of hotels, including live-in managers.”
This dealt a blow to hopes for the Ramada resort. Bailey offered this: “Sites may be removed from this list [Abandoned Site List] as they are cleaned up or the potential hazard is mitigated. Accordingly, the list will appropriately reflect the status of the Mission Bay landfill when cleanup or mitigation is completed.”
The following year, the city and the developer, counseled by Woodward-Clyde, lobbied to get the state to revise this letter or replace it with one that would enable the project to proceed. Documents collected by Miller’s group record conference calls involving up to nine representatives from the various parties, trips to Sacramento, and frequent correspondence. County officials joined in the efforts to pressure the state regulators to soften their reaction. Drafts of what the developer wanted the state to say (e.g., “We see no reason why the City and the developers of the hotel site cannot proceed immediately with the development of the hotel…”) were sent north. The chief of the Toxic Substances Control Division yielded in a letter dated January 31, 1985. “[I]ntended to clarify and supersede the…letter…dated January 10, 1984,” it neither retracted nor reaffirmed the old letter’s technical comments, its call for a deed restriction, or its statements regarding cleanup and mitigation. But the new letter said the state would not designate the site a “hazardous waste property,” and it said that the City and County of San Diego would bear responsibility for the Woodward-Clyde assessment of the site and for health and safety concerns associated with developing it.
Although the resort development never reached completion, the Woodward-Clyde study remains a force in discussions of the landfill Robert Ferrier, the Refuse Disposal Division manager, cites it as a cause for belief that the old landfill is causing no problems. Ferrier points out that many other tests have been conducted since 1983. As with the Woodward-Clyde report, however, city officials and the citizens’ group differ in their interpretations of test results.
Ferrier says the tests have painted a consistent and reassuring picture. “We have been testing for years, looking for any kind of difficulty resulting out of this, and we’ve yet to find it. We’ve been submitting the reports to all the regulatory agencies, and frankly…the people who get paid to do this for a living are not telling us that there is any kind of migration from that landfill.” Ferrier says those government overseers have included the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Members of the Mission Bay Park Toxic Cleanup group see the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessments of the Mission Bay landfill as a cause for concern about the site and the scrutiny it has received.
The federal agency’s awareness of the landfill apparently began around February 1984. At that time, the agency entered the Mission Bay landfill into an inventory of potential hazardous-substance sites. An Environmental Protection Agency evaluator gave the site a preliminary scoring to determine candidacy for the National Priorities List. This list is made up of waste sites known to have released hazardous materials to the environment and those posing a threat of such releases. Inclusion on it doesn’t guarantee that the site will get Superfund monies for a cleanup, but it’s a start. (The Superfund legislation, created by Congress in 1980, taxes chemical and petroleum industries to pay for finding, investigating, and cleaning up the nation’s most hazardous waste sites.)
In its preliminary evaluation, the Environmental Protection Agency relied on the 1983 Woodward-Clyde report to assess the site. Although the evaluator gave the maximum number of points for quantity of materials deposited on the site and for toxicity, the score came to 1.40 out of a possible 100. (To get on the National Priorities List, a site must score 28.5.)
In November 1989, another Environmental Protection Agency–funded assessment was conducted, and this one concluded that the landfill might be eligible for the National Priorities List. A report judged the potential for contamination of the surface water to be high, based on three factors: the landfill’s proximity to Mission Bay, the quantity of waste, and the lack of containment of landfill materials. A contaminant release to the air was deemed possible.
In June 1990 the landfill underwent scoring according to a revised Environmental Protection Agency system. This time, according to a memorandum dated June 29, 1990, the evaluator discounted the groundwater (since no one would be drinking the brackish groundwater near the landfill). However, the old dump received positive scores for the air, surface-water, and “on-site exposure.” The Mission Bay landfill’s score came to 61.61, a number that placed it among the 50 most polluted hazardous waste sites in the country. A separate Environmental Protection Agency document appeared to elevate the landfill to “high priority.”
In 1991, the San Diego dump site underwent an expanded Environmental Protection Agency–funded evaluation, scrutiny generally reserved (according to an agency publication) for sites “clearly headed for the npl [National Priorities List].” This time, according to a September 25, 1991, memo, the evaluator gave the site a score of 49.06, lower than the previous score but above the cut-off for the priority listing. An accompanying memo criticized methods used by the City of San Diego and Woodward-Clyde. The memo said that the city and its consultants had used “detection levels” (for pollutants) that were so high they exceeded the Marine Ambient Water Quality Criteria. (Reporting that a substance cannot be detected above a certain level creates a sense of well-being but may mask contamination if the detection limit is too high.)
One more significant Environmental Protection Agency evaluation transpired at the landfill. In 1993, the agency hired Bechtel Environment, Inc., to evaluate the San Diego site. The Bechtel evaluator conducted no new tests, but in a report dated August 2, 1993, he judged only the air contamination potential to be significant. Groundwater, surface water, and soil offered no potential for transmitting the contamination in this evaluator’s opinion. Nor did he explain why his opinion differed from previous evaluations. The old landfill’s overall score thus amounted to only 14.01 — too low to qualify for inclusion on the National Priorities List. The Environmental Protection Agency reacted swiftly. It placed the site in its archive, where no further action was planned.
Miller of the toxic cleanup group says calls to the regional Environmental Protection Agency headquarters have yielded no explanation for the 1993 turnaround, so the citizen group this past March sent a letter to the agency’s regional director requesting a reevaluation. The agency since has invited Miller and his associates to submit information. They say they plan to send the Environmental Protection Agency a report about the misstated heavy-metal concentrations (in the 1983 Woodward-Clyde report) and concerns about fish contamination, along with test results about which they think agency officials may be ignorant.
One example, they say, is the amount of thallium in surface waters near the landfill over the last 15 years. Found in pure form in nature as an odorless and tasteless bluish-white metal, thallium combines with substances such as bromine, chlorine, fluorine, and iodine. Industrial processes employ such thallium compounds, which have also been used as a rat and ant poison. Humans who have ingested large amounts of the element over a short time have experienced “vomiting, diarrhea, temporary hair loss…effects on the nervous system, lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys…[and] death,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (The effects of ingesting low levels of thallium over a long time or having skin contact with thallium are not known.) One federal government fact sheet adds that thallium “stays in the air, water, and soil for a long time and is not broken down,” and it “builds up in fish and shellfish.” A separate Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet confirms that thallium is “quickly bioaccumulated.”
Because thallium builds up in sea life, the federal standard for thallium in fishing waters is just 6.3 parts per billion. Compare that to results of testing conducted by the city next to the old landfill in October 1985. Concentrations of thallium ranged from 900 to 1100 parts per billion. Yet no warnings about the fish caught in the area were posted. Subsequent test values have varied. In 1986 and 1987, the city reported concentration at 380 parts per billion. In 1988, the concentration was “less than 100” parts per billion. In 1997, thallium concentration was 91 parts per billion — more than 14 times the federal standard for fishing waters. Environmental Protection Agency literature describes the worst recorded conditions of thallium water pollution as 30 parts per billion, an amount found near ore-processing operations and streams draining ore-rich soils. Yet in the face of these test results, the City of San Diego has discontinued testing for thallium near the old landfill.
Asked about the thallium findings, Ferrier, the Refuse Disposal Division manager, responded, “There’s nobody telling us that that spike in a single element like that is related to any kind of a release from the landfill.” He elaborated, “It’s impossible to release only thallium and not release everything else.… That’s not what leachate does. That’s not the way landfills are.… So is there thallium in Mission Bay? I don’t know, and I certainly don’t know where it’s coming from.” If it is there, he declared, “It’s not coming from the Mission Bay Landfill.”
The members of Miller’s group say that testing at and near the landfill over the last 15 years has yielded findings of other elevated pollutants. They cite a 1996 report written by a city consultant named emcon that summarized concentrations of mercury found near the landfill between 1985 and 1995. The sampling reported amounts that were 17 to 600 times greater than the federal fishing-water standard.
Miller acknowledges that for all the research he and his associates have done, they haven’t found any evidence that contamination from the landfill has harmed anyone except for the construction workers back in 1988. After news of the toxic deposits became public in 1983, a Bay Park woman did write the county health department to report “an epidemic of cancer cases” in the area just downwind of the landfill. “I can name 19–20 cases in this small [two-block] area,” she wrote, “a cancer case in almost every house.” Although Miller’s group found a letter from the county acknowledging her concerns, they found no records indicating an investigation.
Miller asks, “Why wait?” until harm emerges. “Why not err on the side of caution and find out what is going on there? There are large amounts of toxic chemicals and heavy metals buried in Mission Bay, and nobody is taking any action.” He adds, “The documented pattern of avoidance, denial, whitewash, and contradiction regarding the Mission Bay landfill is too pervasive to ignore.”
Miller says his group hopes to file an environmental lawsuit against the city. They’re seeking legal assistance with such an action. In the meantime, Miller has become convinced that “cleanup is the only option” for what he calls “America’s Finest Toxic Waste Dump.”
Ferrier, the city’s Refuse Disposal Division deputy director, says the city has never evaluated costs of cleaning up the old landfill. But he suggests it would be an “interesting scenario” to recommend “that we ought to go into the middle of Mission Bay and excavate an area of that magnitude and transport it.” Just imagine, the bureaucrat suggests, what people would say if you put the following question to them: “We’re going to go dig this up and transport it across your street. Do you mind?”