Toxic plume of gasoline has contaminated Qualcomm Stadium property for 27 years.
by Andy Cohen
San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith announced yesterday that the City of San Diego has filed a lawsuit against the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and Kinder Morgan Energy Partners of Houston, Texas, the owner of the massive gasoline tank farm adjacent to the Qualcomm Stadium property, over contamination of Murphy Canyon Creek, the San Diego River, and ultimately, San Diego beaches.
It’s a suit nearly 27 years in the making, since the first plumes of gasoline began leaking from the tank farm in 1986.
“The City of San Diego is the victim here,” said Goldsmith in making the announcement. “Justice has not been done for this victim.”
Goldsmith was joined by City Council Members Sherri Lightner, Kevin Faulconer, Marti Emerald, and Scott Sherman. “We’re here today unanimous in support of the city to say ‘enough is enough!” said Faulconer.
The efforts to force the owners of the tank farm to clean up the toxic spill have been going on for decades, with the company continuously dragging its feet in an effort to avoid the costly process. In 2002 an arbitrator ruled that Kinder Morgan should be held responsible for the cleanup, but little has been done since. In 2007 the city attempted to file a suit for damages against the company, but the judge in the case ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. The city is still appealing that ruling, asserting that the contamination is an ongoing event and therefore, according to Goldsmith, not subject to an expiration date.
In the new lawsuit, the city claims that the Water Board is complicit in the continuous contamination and discharge of more than 1.2 million gallons per day of otherwise perfectly good groundwater that Goldsmith says could otherwise be used to supply potable water to nearly six thousand homes.
The trouble, says Goldsmith, is that with the Water Board’s permission, Kinder Morgan is being allowed to extract the contaminated water from the Mission Valley Aquifer, only partially treat it, and then release it into the San Diego River and ultimately into the ocean and beaches. The process the company is using is also preventing the water table from rising high enough at the property to allow the city to accurately measure the current contamination levels, making it near impossible to determine the effectiveness of the cleanup process being employed by Kinder Morgan.
The lawsuit seeks to force the company to extract the contaminated groundwater, clean it to potable (drinkable) quality, and re-inject it back into the aquifer so that it can be used by consumers. The suit also seeks to compel the Water Board to enforce the law and provide adequate oversight of the company, and proper punishment for inadequate results. In December 2002, the Water Board fined the company $21,000 because the groundwater exceeded toxic limits seven times in the first six months of that year.
“It is unacceptable that the city has had to file suit against a state agency that has ‘water quality control’ in its title to ask them to step in and, you know, ask them to control the water quality for this watershed,” said Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. “This is an agency that hasn’t been shy in levying huge fines against the city when the unprecedented and catastrophic blackout of 2011 occurred and caused sewage spills. But now the Regional Water Quality Control Board is unwilling to hold Kinder Morgan’s feet to the fire to properly clean up this area.”
“Everybody in this community should not only be concerned but mad, angry with Kinder Morgan and the Regional Water Quality Control Board for condoning this, not only allowing them to do this dumping of partially treated water, but actually allowing them to double the amount because they were having a hard time meeting their deadline for cleanup,” said Councilwoman Emerald. The Water Board, she said, is making the problem worse.
In addition to the water quality and environmental issues, the ability of the city to utilize the property is at stake. The Qualcomm Stadium property currently is 160 acres of asphalt parking lot with the stadium in the middle. Until the underground pollution is adequately cleaned up, the city would be precluded from any kind of redevelopment. Which means, for example, should the Chargers ever decide to revisit their previous proposal to build a new stadium on the site in conjunction with commercial and residential development, nothing could move forward until the toxic plume is eliminated.
“We are sitting on a very worthless piece of ground” because of the level of contamination, said Councilman Scott Sherman, whose City Council district includes the Qualcomm Stadium property. “The taxpayers have an asset here in this stadium and the land it sits on, and it’s very important to me that we make sure that when the tater table is allowed to come back that we make sure there’s no liability to the city and the taxpayers of San Diego.”
“The next time ratepayers hear that their water rates may have to go up again, just remember that the state is allowing more than 360 million gallons of your water to be dumped into the river and run out into the ocean,” said Emerald.