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Clean-up Efforts Slow in Qualcomm Groundwater Contamination


As San Diego's water shortage worsens, one possible local source remains undrinkable. There's an aquifer under the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot. But it was contaminated by petroleum spills in the 1980s and 90s. The company responsible for the cleanup has repeatedly missed deadlines and is being sued by the city of San Diego. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.


WEB EXTRA | Photo Slideshow
(As much as 500,000 gallons of fuel leaked below this Mission Valley Terminal in the 1980s, contaminating the groundwater below. Amita Sharma/KPBS)

In 2003, a judge called efforts by Kinder Morgan and a subsidiary to remove petroleum products from the groundwater at Qualcomm Stadium an "unmitigated disaster." San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre says that characterization is also an indictment of San Diego's Regional Water Quality Control Board 


Aguirre: One of the problems is that Kinder Morgan has no incentive to really get the job done because they're in sync with the passive approach of the water quality control board.


The board issued its first cleanup order in 1992. The order has since been amended five times. Officials were unable to answer why the deadline was moved three times in the 1990s.


Chan: I can only really speak for the earlier part of this millennium.


Julie Chan is a senior engineering geologist who began working at the board in 2000.


In 2002, 16 years after the original spill, Chan says the board decided to amend the cleanup order a fourth time. This after Kinder Morgan missed the previous deadline by three years.


Chan: The cleanup was complex enough that the original cleanup plan probably wasn't going to get KM to the finish line by the due date in the cleanup and abatement order.


Chan concedes contamination removal had been scattershot.


Chan: It had been somewhat piecemeal. Put another well in here. Put another well in there. But we recognized that it was time for a comprehensive approach.


In 2004, Kinder Morgan submitted documents stating it could finish the cleanup sometime between 2015 and 2034. 


Chan: We rolled that date back to 2013 and amended that cleanup and abatement order for hopefully the last time.


Chan's colleague Craig Carlisle says the tightness of the soils and properties of the gasoline make removal a slow process.


Carlisle: Other large groundwater cleanups don't get cleaned up in 10 or 20 years either.


(Photo: Worker Glenn Smith works at a clean-up site in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium. Amita Sharma/KPBS )

Cleanup crews were visible last month at the stadium's parking lot.

 And Kinder Morgan attorney Mike Tracy says the company has installed a number of wells that extract the water.


Tracy: The water is then treated and then the water is then discharged back into Murphy Canyon River which then recharges the aquifer.


But even with that effort, city water department Deputy Director Marsi Steirer doesn't believe Kinder Morgan will make the 2010 soil cleanup target.


Steirer: When you have approximately two years to go, we would be basically in the mop-up stage and it's apparent by the numbers that we've seen that we're not anywhere close to wrapping it up.


Steirer says the contaminated aquifer could supply enough water for 5,000 homes a day.


Kinder Morgan's Tracy says he understand the city's water needs, but…


Tracy: Even if there were no petroleum products present in the groundwater, the groundwater could not be used for drinking water purposes unless it was treated. It's too salty.


Steirer says the city has the capacity to treat the water so it's drinkable.


Steirer: The treatment technology to remove salt from water is reverse osmosis. It's easy technology. It's readily available. The equipment is actually manufactured in San Diego County.


While the cleanup labors on, the city's lawsuit continues. There is no certainty incoming city attorney Jan Goldsmith will pursue the case Aguirre has begun.


Kinder Morgan's Tracy says the company hopes to settle out of court.


Amita Sharma, KPBS News.


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