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October 12, 2009

S.D. Bay cleanup proposal drags on
Project in mediation; work may be years off

Mike Lee
Union-Tribune Staff Writer


Crews removed sludge from the site of the former Campbell Industries shipyard south of the San Diego Convention Center in 2005. (U-T file)

One of the largest environmental cleanup projects in county history is languishing, with no clear start date for work that was proposed in 2005.

Details on how to handle contaminated sediment in San Diego Bay - initially pegged at $96 million - remain buried in secret mediation talks. Those negotiations have dragged on for an unexpected 16 months, and that's on top of the three years it took for regional water regulators to prepare documents associated with the case.

The main points of contention include defining the cleanup area, determining the acceptable level of pollutants and forming ways to monitor progress.

A schedule issued Thursday by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board set Oct. 30 as the deadline for a revised cleanup proposal to be made public.

"If what is past is prologue, we still have a long road before the toxic sediment is removed," said Gabriel Solmer, the legal director for San Diego Coastkeeper.

David King, bay-sediment czar for the board's governing panel, hasn't said when a public hearing would be held for the forthcoming proposal. He also hasn't said when the full board might review that document and eventually issue its final cleanup order.

Actual work in the bay could be years away because it's increasingly uncertain that the mediation process overseen by King will fulfill a main goal - avoiding litigation.

The controversy centers on roughly 60 acres of the bay floor south of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge that were tainted decades ago by heavy industry, military operations and storm water.

Lead, arsenic and potentially carcinogenic PCBs are among the toxins causing concern. Environmentalists, scientists and community activists fear the pollutants are harming the marine ecosystem and endangering the health of people who eat fish and shellfish from the bay.

The water board issued its first cleanup proposal in April 2005 and expected to vote on finalizing the order within four months. The plan focused on dredging about 885,000 cubic yards of sediment.

Six parties would have to pay for the cleanup, according to documents from the water board. They are General Dynamics NASSCO, BAE Systems San Diego Ship Repair, the city of San Diego, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., the Navy and the parent companies of San Diego Marine Construction Co.

Two major environmental groups - Coastkeeper and the Environmental Health Coalition - recently quit the mediation efforts. They alleged being "systematically excluded" from the discussions even though they were supposed to be part of the team.

TIMELINE

  • January 1991: San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board requests a study of sediment in San Diego Bay.
  • February 2001: The board's staff recommends analysis of shipyard sediment.
  • April 2005: The agency issues a tentative order for cleanup work pegged at $96 million.
  • April 2008: It releases nearly 400,000 pages of related documents.
  • June 2008: Parties involved in the cleanup project agree to confidential mediation.
  • September 2009: Two environmental groups withdraw from mediation.

SOURCES: San Diego Coastkeeper; San Diego Regional Water QualityControl Board

"This is a failed process," Solmer said. "We believed in the mediation as a cost-effective way to address some of the larger issues, and unfortunately, that has not happened. This has ultimately become a delay tactic."

King said the negotiations have stretched on because there are many parties involved. He hopes mediation will end up saving time by producing an agreement the board can adopt with few objections.

"This hasn't been foot-dragging. This is just a monster chore," King said.

He said he couldn't directly address Solmer's complaints about being left out of the talks because the mediation phase is confidential.

"Everybody has grievances - their own particular issues that they are not happy about," King said. "The environmentalists are the only ones that go public with them."

At San Diego Coastkeeper, Solmer questioned whether groups liable for the cleanup wield too much influence.

"The dischargers aren't writing their own plan, but they've had unfettered access to the regulators who are," Solmer said.

King said the mediation results will be subject to public scrutiny and review by the water board.

Since at least 1991, the agency's officials have tried to scope out the sediment problem, establish parameters for years of cleanup and issue a mandate for the work.

The bureaucratic process has frustrated many people with ties to the bay, including the head of the State Water Resources Control Board and state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego. Both have questioned the regional water board's ability to finish the case.

"The state water board was concerned at one point that there was not enough forward momentum, but then the regional board decided to pursue a mediated approach. It made sense to give that approach a chance," said Judie Panneton, a spokeswoman for that agency in Sacramento.

Last year, Kehoe said the regional water board had a "reputation for inaction" and cited other cleanup efforts that have been postponed for years.

At the former Ametek site in El Cajon, the board has pushed for mapping and treatment of an underground chemical leak for more than two decades. The plume of pollutants remains untreated because of mediation, legal challenges and bureaucracy.

In August, the agency issued a $600,000 fine and threatened more penalties if deadlines were missed again.

In the bay-sediment case, the regional water board launched a public-comment process in April 2008 that was supposed to lead to a final cleanup order in about nine months. But the agency changed course two months later, saying most of the affected parties had asked for private mediation.

This month, a spokesman for General Dynamics NASSCO expressed confidence in how the matter is being handled.

"We are pleased with the progress that is being made," NASSCO spokesman Karl Johnson said in an interview.

Regional water board Chairman Richard Wright said the repeated delays have made him anxious, but that he hasn't tried to pull the plug on mediation because his agency had dedicated so much time to the negotiations.

"We went into mediation because of our past experience where things have gone on for years and years and years with lawsuits and all that," Wright said. "The thought was that going through mediation would expedite the process. It remains to be seen."


Mike Lee: (619) 542-4570;

Related Terms: Christine KehoeEl CajonSDG&E