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City Worried About Plume’s Future

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

San Diego city officials are worried that gasoline from Kinder Morgan's tank farm may be re-polluting the soil and water under the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot. The city wants regulators to require the company to clean up the source of the pollution -- a petroleum spill underneath tank farm north of the stadium. Without such a cleanup, the city fears its land and water will be unusable. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

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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)

Qualcomm Stadium sits on 166 acres of prime San Diego real estate.  Some city leaders want to build schools, parks and a fire station on the land. They're also hoping to pump up to 3 million gallons a day of drinking water from an old aquifer under the stadium. Financiers have talked of converting the stadium into a $2 billion sports complex that would have hotels, apartments, offices, shops and parking garages.

All ambitious plans, but blocked by two huge toxic plumes underground.

Greenberg: What is the value of a piece of property that has a plume directly upgradient from it that at any time if there's a failure of the system, your underground parking lot may become too dangerous to go into?

Marc Greenberg is an attorney who used to represent Shell Oil in litigation over the petrochemical plumes.

Greenberg: It would be risky at best for the city to invest money into a drinking water aquifer if at any moment it is going to be threatened by an uphill plume because a pump fails.

The plume Greenberg is referring to is directly under the Mission Valley Terminal. That's where  tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline or Light Non-Aqueous Phase Liquids known as LNAPL spilled into the ground in the 80s and 90s. The carcinogens seeped downward to the earth and aquifer under the Qualcomm parking lot.  The terminal's owner Kinder Morgan is cleaning up the plume under the lot. But Greenberg says it should clean up the plume under the terminal at the same time.

Map: The gray shaded area below shows the extent of the fuel leak. Click on the map (pdf) to learn more. Courtesy of the City of San Diego .

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Greenberg: You need to attack this with everything you've got and address the LNAPL everywhere it is.

Barring that, Greenberg likens Kinder Morgan's approach to applying bandages to cancer.

Greenberg: Everytime a new part of the body dies, you're cutting it off, you're gonna patch that up but you're letting the cancer just stay there.

Marsi Steirer of the city's water department says for years, staff has called on regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board to push the terminal cleanup issue with Kinder Morgan.

Steirer: But it really isn't one that the board has acted on.

The water board's Sean McClain says cleaning up the terminal is on the agenda but sequentially, not simultaneously with the plume cleanup under the Qualcomm parking lot.

McClain: The whole plan has always been to clean up the off-site property first and then start scaling back and moving that to the on-terminal property.

As a matter fact, existing permits issued by the water board would not allow Kinder Morgan to discharge water from both cleanups at the same time. McClain plans are under way for a new permit in March that would allow more flexibility.

In the interim, McClain sees little reason for the city to worry about further contamination.

McClain: The containment barrier prevents that now. That's why the barrier was put in place. It was to prevent any petroleum hydrocarbons moving off the property.

But a consultant for the city says there are signs the containment barrier isn't working. Kinder Morgan disputes that and says it has the data to prove the barrier is functioning properly. 

None of this is really new. In 2003, Kinder Morgan sued Shell oil to get it to clean up the Qualcomm plume. At the time, Greenberg was a lawyer for Shell.

Greenberg: This same argument and this same question of whether or not they had complete capture has been ongoing since 2003. There is nothing to prevent Kinder Morgan from addressing both locations at the same time -- just desire and money.

Kinder Morgan says it will start the "design process" to clean up the terminal while it continues to deal with the plume under the parking lot. But the company has no date on when that work might be finished.

The city of San Diego has sued Kinder Morgan and is likely to ask a judge to order simultaneous cleanups of both plumes. As one lawyer put it, enforcement on this one will have to come from the bench.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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