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Despite Cleanup Orders, Tainted Water at Qualcomm Unresolved

Water rationing may be a part of San Diego's near future if the city's suppliers follow through on threatened cutbacks. Yet amid the prospect of shortages, officials say San Diegans are being denied m

Despite Cleanup Orders, Tainted Water at Qualcomm Unresolved

Water rationing may be a part of San Diego's near future if the city's suppliers follow through on threatened cutbacks. Yet amid the prospect of shortages, officials say San Diegans are being denied millions of gallons of potentially drinkable water every day because of contamination from spills dating back to 1986. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

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

Just northeast of Qualcomm Stadium sits a 10-acre petroleum tank and pipeline farm called the Mission Valley Terminal. It's the hub for delivering gasoline, jet fuel and diesel across San Diego County.

It is also the source of multiple leaks dating back to the 1980s.

Serrano: The estimates run from a couple of hundred thousand to 500,000 gallons over the course of a number of years before it was discovered.

John Serrano is a San Diego deputy city attorney.

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Serrano: This may indeed be the largest spill of petroleum products west of the Mississippi River.

Those products include carcinogens like gasoline, benzene and the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether  - a potential carcinogen. The MTBE, the gas and by-products have seeped into the soil and groundwater, at one time, creating a plume nearly a mile long that stretched underneath the San Diego River all the way to the 805 overpass. The contamination, according to the water department's Marsi Steirer, poses a significant loss of drinking water for San Diegans.

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 .

Steirer: We estimate that we would be able to utilize 2 million to 3 million gallons of water a day and that would be enough water for 4,000 to 5,000 households. We think this water is very crucial to our future.

The aquifer was a crucial source of water for San Diego until the 1940s when the city decided to import more water for less money from Northern California.

But city officials say years of drought and limits on water pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have made local supplies like the aquifer underneath Qualcomm Stadium even more critical.

Enter Kinder Morgan Energy Partners.

Tracy: The company is sympathetic to the city's needs as well as all of Southern California. Everyone understands that water is a precious resource.

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Mission Valley "Tank Farm"

The 10-acre petroleum tank and pipeline farm called the Mission Valley Terminal is the hub for delivering gasoline, jet fuel and diesel across San Diego County.

The “tank farm” can store up to 26 million gallons of fuel -- which is piped from Los Angeles.

The tank farm was built above an ancient streambed composed of gravel and sand – an absorbent soil that allowed up to 500,000 gallons of fuel to leak into a groundwater aquifer in the 1980s.

The leak contained gasoline, benzene and the additive MTBE - methyl tertiary butyl ether -- potential carcinogens.

Kinder Morgan bought the Mission Valley Terminal after the spill occurred and is being sued by the City of San Diego to expedite the clean-up proces

Mike Tracy is an attorney for the Houston-based company that bought the Mission Valley Terminal after the spills occurred.

Tracy: Kinder Morgan is committed to trying to clean the water up of petroleum products that exist with the groundwater as quickly as they can.

Kinder Morgan has until 2010 to get the petroleum out of the soil and 2013 to remove the gas from the water.

McGrath: Kinder Morgan understands the deadlines that exist in 2010 and 2013 and is doing all it can to meet those deadlines.

That's a claim former Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath doesn't believe. Kinder Morgan has missed cleanup deadlines before. He says company representatives have in the past asked for a longer timetable.

McGrath: Kinder Morgan's attitude is they'll get to it when they can but when they can is what some time in 2034 is what they think. So we have someone who has literally dumped rubbish in our yard and tells us they can get rid of it in 24 years. Well, if you saw the rubbish, you'd know how bad that was because it would be in a yard and you couldn't use your yard like you'd like to well it's the same thing but you just can't see the gasoline.

It's the responsibility of the regional water quality control board to enforce the cleanup. But City Attorney Mike Aguirre says the agency hasn't done its job. So he sued Kinder Morgan last year, he says, to accelerate the process.

  Aguirre: They've taken a passive and gradual approach that is resulting in a generation passing before there's any expectation of a real cleanup.

Not so says the agency's Craig Carlisle.

Carlisle: We take it very serious. We've got our best people working on this. We have two outside experts in these sort of cleanups so it's a high priority project for this office.

The water board first issued a cleanup order in 1992 but has since amended it five times. And in our next report we'll explain some of the reasons.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.