By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
Coming off a trouncing over the last 2 years because of the Orca circuses, SeaWorld has announced that it now plans on building a hotel and resort at its location on the southern rim of Mission Bay. Its hope is that declining attendances and revenues will be halted with a branded hotel right there on its site with its aquatic theme.
Yet, there is trouble afoot for these plans. SeaWorld needs to re-appraise the project, for the last time a major hotel was planned for that area of Mission Bay – it ended in disaster. In the early 1980s, Ramada wanted to build a resort – and the city had given the go-ahead.
But when it came time to begin construction, it was uncovered that a toxic landfill sat beneath all that sand. The old Mission Bay Landfill.
In turns out, that back in the early Eighties, the City of San Diego had entirely forgotten about the history of that section of Mission Bay. It turns out, the City ran a domestic and industrial landfill from 1952 through 1959 right there on the southern edge of Mission Bay, the largest aquatic park on the West Coast.
The City, the Navy, and the aerospace industry all poured their waste or dumped barrels of toxins into unlined sand pits at the site, located between what’s now I-5, south to the San Diego River, north to the water of the Bay, and west into land now occupied by parking lots and … SeaWorld.
This is why SeaWorld cannot build a 3 story hotel and resort, as it wants to, next to Perez Cove. There’s an old toxic landfill within yards away. Any 3 story building, I am told by an engineer, would require at least one story underground and steel beams driven into the sandy soil down 30 feet. This excavation into what’s below could very well disturb toxic gases and who knows what else.
What are we talking about?
In a seminal broadside15 years ago about the old, toxic landfill, the San Diego Reader described:
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, city 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.
The Reader continues on the planned hotel development in 1983:
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. …
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. … 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.
The Ramada resort was never built – as you may know. But city officials weren’t ready to give up. They wanted to salvage the hotel development project – as the City was to receive a predicted million dollars a year from the resort. So, a study was conducted to determine whether hazardous materials were present at or near the landfill, and what their concentrations were.
In August and September of 1983, the firm selected began collecting samples of groundwater from 20 wells drilled on and near the landfill site. In addition, “cover soil, landfill material, and underlying alluvium extracted from 21 boring sites” were scrutinized, and gases from 10 wells examined.
At the same time, the study uncovered old files and documents – also buried within the depths of the City’s bureaucracy – that indicated that toxic wastes were dumped into the Mission Bay landfill in the 1950s by –
“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.”
The study concluded, in the report generated – as per the Reader:
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.
… 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 their findings, the consultant reassured the city that the Ramada resort development could proceed, but even so, they warned:
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.
Yet, Ramada did not go forth. And nothing happened to the site for the next five years, as another session of collective amnesia set in.
No clean-up of the site occurred, but what did occur were plans by the City in 1988 to develop “South Shores Park” – a $4.5 million plan that included excavating nine-acres for a cove just north of the landfill.
The plans also included a boat-launching basin, a 16-acre parking lot, restroom facilities, boarding docks, and a public beach on the east side of the man-made cove. An engineer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board raised eyebrows about the development, however, when he cautioned in June of 1987, that the excavation might “result in the disruption of the landfill cover and/or involve excavation and exposure of landfill waste materials.”
Grading began on the site. About a month later – early October 1988 – workers digging the excavation for the cove smelled rotten eggs, started vomiting, and then suffered headaches. Three of the workers had to be hospitalized – and one eventually died – (his exposure had acerbated an existing condition). His widow filed a wrongful-death suit and settled with the City for $8500. An environmental consultant concluded that workers had encountered a pocket of hydrogen sulfide gas, and recommended they be required to wear oxygen masks.
The Reader described additional muddied waters:
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, … found in a concentration more than 900 times the state’s maximum for drinking water.
South Shores Park was eventually built – but 6 years after schedule.
In the summer of 2000, the Reader article was published. And a brand new, local Ocean Beach activist network, called OB Grassroots Organization (OBGO), took up the banner of bringing the issue of the toxic waste dump to the public and to City officials. These OBceans complained of not knowing what was seeping and leaking out of the old landfill and flowing down the San Diego River to Dog Beach and Ocean Beach.
OBGO began a public education campaign about the dump – handing out fliers, giving presentations, and collecting signatures on petitions calling for a study. In 2001 OBGO held a large rally and march from OB to the landfill site and back.
The grassroots pressure paid off. Then-Councilwoman Donna Frye announced in 2002 that she was forming a research effort to determine whether the old landfill was leaking toxic gases or chemicals into the sand or water and was able to convince her colleagues to fund a $500,000 study.
Frye created the Mission Bay Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) – which this author was a member of – to act as an oversight committee made up of technical experts and community members, to assist the City Environmental Services Department and her office in overseeing the investigation into possible toxins. SCS Engineers were hired to complete the assessment report.
After a year-long study, the consultants concluded that the current landfill site – left undisturbed – posed little environmental threats – but that the old site should be monitored and treated with caution. It concluded that the landfill does not discharge significant contamination into Mission Bay, and that there is little evidence of persistent pollution from industrial waste, and no landfill gases were detected at the surface.
Donna Frye said then:
“We asked what were the approximate limits of the landfill and we asked whether or not it was any kind of a significant health risk, particularly to the public, and the answer came back, “No,’” Frye said. “It is not currently a health risk. Could that change? Absolutely, and that is what we want to really keep our eye on.”
The report did find that parts of the eastern area of the old landfill were very thin, increasing chances of future discharges of gases up to the top, that passersby or construction workers might be endangered if there was any major digging at the site. It proposed dumping soil over the thin spots. The report stated:
“The possibility (remains) that some contaminants . . . in unevaluated locations or . . . still contained in steel drums may be released.”
In sum, this is why SeaWorld can’t build a hotel at its location. It is true that the western boundary of the old landfill is uncertain; SeaWorld engineers can argue that the aquatic-themed park or Perez Cove were never within the dump. But it’s a close call.
Too close for comfort.
Please see “Something Stinks in Mission Bay” by Jeannette DeWyze, July 20, 2000 – San Diego Reader
Retired Mission Bay landfill investigated for hazards
by Lori Martinez sdnews.com