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Phase 2 of Bay Cleanup Dredges Up Old Issues

One of the more contentious environmental remediation projects in San Diego history — a cleanup of two sites in San Diego Bay — enters phase two this week.

And while environmentalists cheer the removal of some of the heaviest contaminants that have built up over decades, they also charge that responsible parties delayed this work for years, leading to higher costs in the long run.

“When the [San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board] came to the shipyards

years ago and asked them to be involved in the process, that’s when they chose to fight and lawyer up instead of being responsible. … It’s an outrage,” said Laura Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit group that’s been advocating for the cleanup for a few decades.

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Work on a site near the General Dynamics Nassco shipyards, referred to as the south area in most government reports, was done in March and involved the removal of 29,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Work on the second phase of the cleanup was scheduled to begin Aug. 1 and will entail removing about 106,000 cubic yards of sediment.

“This is the largest cleanup project on the West Coast,” said Ralph Hicks, vice president of contracts at R.E. Staite Engineering Inc., the contractor for the dredging project.

R.E. Staite, which also was involved in the cleanup of oil in Alaska caused by the tanker Exxon Valdez, is using its barges and heavy equipment to dig up the sea floor near the shipyards. Contaminated sediment dug from the sea floor is first deposited on a large barge, then mixed with cement slurry before being deposited on trucks and taken to the a landfill in Otay Mesa.

On a typical workday, 30 to 60 trucks are moving in and out from the cleanup sites near the San Diego Coronado Bridge. Some 40 workers on a typical day are involved in the process, Hicks said.

High Cost Delayed Project

The cost of the two phases was estimated at $75 million, but the fact that parts of the project are still in litigation has caused several companies and government agencies to avoid saying much of anything.

Calls to the San Diego City Attorney’s office and to General Dynamics Nassco weren’t returned. A spokeswoman for BAE Systems referred any questions to a website set up for basic information.

A request for information from the San Diego Unified Port District, the government landlord that oversees the bay, was referred to the port clerk’s office.

In addition to those parties, others identified in a 2012 cleanup and abatement order from the local Water Quality Control Board, a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency, are Chevron Texaco, BP, San Diego Gas & Electric Co., the U.S. Navy, and two defunct companies, Star & Crescent Boat Co. and Campbell Industries.

Michael Palmer, project coordinator at De Maximus Inc., a national consulting company appointed as the trustee overseeing the cleanup, said the cost for the south site was $24 million, and for the north site would be $50 million. When asked how the costs are divided up, he said the project is in litigation.

Hicks, a former executive for the port district, said the remediation has been delayed for years because the anticipated costs were so high. When all the responsible parties were named, each contacted their insurance carriers, which all joined in the process, he said.

“You’re probably talking about 40 different parties, and that’s why this is costing so much,” Hicks said.

Project Won’t Nearly Clean Entire Bay

David Gibson, executive officer for the Water Quality Control Board, said that despite outstanding federal litigation by the city of San Diego, the parties were able to strike an agreement about three years ago to get the dredging process started.

The actual agreement arranged through a mediator took about three years to achieve, but Gibson was unable to say what each of the parties were paying.

While the cleanup will remove the largest amounts of contaminants at two key sites, “it certainly doesn’t clean up the entire bay, not by a longshot,” Gibson said.

Asked whether it be safe to eat fish caught in the bay after the cleanup project is completed next March, Gibson said the state long ago issued a warning against eating fish that applies to pregnant women and children.

Hunter, who has advocated for the cleanup since the early 1990s, said the cleanup project was structured as a compromise and is far less than what her organization wanted.

“This is not like this will make the bay all clean when [the project] is all done,” Hunter said. “They’re not taking all the pollutants from all the wetlands.”

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