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KPBS Midday Edition

Cleaning Up The San Diego Bay

Cleaning Up The San Diego Bay
Who is responsible for cleaning up the toxic sludge in the San Diego Bay and how is this an environmental justice issue?

Fifteen years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called San Diego Bay the second most toxic bay in the country. Today prevention efforts have slowed the flow of new pollutants into the bay, but the collection of chemicals left there many years ago -- people call it "legacy pollution" -- still creates a serious problem. The San Diego Regional Water Quality Board is negotiating a cleanup in November. Today we will learn more about the causes and social costs of this pollution.


"What we have here really is a legacy of pollution that dates back decades from when ship building started in San Diego bay."


Jill Witkowski, Staff Attorney, San Diego Coastkeeper

"There's a large population of people who engage in subsistence fishing, Latinos and Filipinos mostly, and that is their food for themselves and their families. Many times that they're cooking the fish that they're catching or if they're eating organs of the fish, there would still be mercury or other toxins inside. And that unfortunately goes to the kids that they're feeding, or if they're pregnant women, it's going into the fetus as well. And that can cause damage."

Jose Medina, Environmental Justice Advocate

Powerpoint on San Diego Bay Pollution
Powerpoint on San Diego Bay Pollution

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

FUDGE: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Tom Fudge. 15†years ago, the national oceanic and atmospheric administration called San Diego bay the second most toxic bay in the country. The today the bay doesn't have nearly the problem of poisonous efluin being dumped into it, but the collection of pollutants left there many years ago still creates a serious problem. San Diego bay is sited under the federal clean water act for 20 different pollutants, including mercury, copper, lead, and zinc as a result of runoff from shipyards and naval facilities. The regional water quality board is negotiating a cleanup. They expect a cleanup order later this year. We're going to talk about that, and related issues with Jill Witkowski, and Jose Medina. Jill is a staff attorney for San Diego coast keeper. And thank you very much.


WITKOWSKI: Thank you.

FUDGE: And Jose Medina, Environmental Justice Advocate.

ZANE: Thank you for having me here.

FUDGE: Given us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727. You can call with questions about San Diego bay. 1-888-895-KPBS. Jill, what is the history of the pollution of the bay? When did this start happening?

WITKOWSKI: As you said, Tom, what we have here really is a legacy of pollution that dates back decades from when ship building started in San Diego bay. One of the main pollution problems that we have is actually called PCBs, and they were banned in 1979. So this pollution dates back many years.

FUDGE: Okay. And specifically what is creating the pollution? Is it painting ships? Building ships? Companying trash? What has been the problem over the years?

WITKOWSKI: It's been a combination of all those sources. The main ones that we're concentrating on now with this process are toxic heavy metals from ship building which include copper, mercury, arsenic, and lead.

FUDGE: Now, I called this legacy pollution. Is this pollution that's been down there for a long time?

WITKOWSKI: Many, many years, yes.

FUDGE: Does that mean we're not dumping those kind of things into the bay anymore?

WITKOWSKI: Hopefully not. Many of the shipyards have cleaned up their act over the years. We're trying to deal with are past pollution problems that still are of concern.

FUDGE: What about recreational marinas?

WITKOWSKI: They are part of the problem in part because of copper leeching from the bottoms of boats.

FUDGE: I'm trying to get a better picture of what's going on in the bay. You have all this stuff dump indeed there, and it's just sitting down there, and it continues to leech into the water? Draw us a picture of what the problem is.

WITKOWSKI: Right now one of areas we're focusing on are the historic shipyards, scraping paint off of boats and painting boats lead to pollution dripping down there. What we're looking at now is trying to clean these up and get these corporate polluters that they caused many, many years ago.

FUDGE: And leaving the stuff in there, if you leave it alone, it's still going to cause problems for the quality of the water.


FUDGE: It's not static?

WITKOWSKI: It's not static. What happens is the bugs that live in this lair of soil at the bottom of the bay form the base of our food chain. And those bugs are becoming contaminating from the pollution that sits in there. When fish eat those bugs, and bigger fish eat the little fish, and then people eat the big fish, that's where we have this problem from this pollution.

FUDGE: Jose, you grew up in national city. What do you remember about growing up near the bay? What kind of things did you see going on there?

ZANE: I used to fish off the pepper park peer in national city, and the embarcadero as well in San Diego. Mackerel, Bonita, and sea bass as well. The but we've been warned through word of mouth that the fish was not the healthiest to eat, and this is when I was a teenager, and I stopped doing that. Now, many of my neighbors, and the health coalition can give you stats on this, there's a large population of people who engage in subsistence fishing, Latinos and Filipinos mostly, and that is their food for themselves and their families. Many times that they're cooking the fish that they're stewing or if they're eating organs of the fish, there would still be mercury or other toxins inside. And that unfortunately goes to the kids that they're feeding, or if they're pregnant women, it's going into the fetus as well. And that can cause damage.

FUDGE: How do people who live along the bay, how are they exposed to this? One way is through eating figure? Is that primarily how it happens?

ZANE: For these subsistence fishers, yes. That's unfortunately happened. Some of the people who fish there, it might be a meal they have three times a week, perhaps. And then of course it gets into their bodies, and that has long-term effects.

FUDGE: Once again my guests are Jose Medina and Jill Witkowski, Jose is an environmental justice advocate, and a resident of national city. Jill Witkowski is a staff attorney for San Diego coast keeper. We're talking about the continuing problem of pollution in San Diego bay due to toxins that were dumped there decades ago. Jill, is there any way in which our treatment of the bay has improved? We're talking about toxins that are some decades old. Does that mean in recent decades we've stopped doing what we were doing in the past?

WITKOWSKI: Yes, are the shipyards specifically have taken major steps to avoid this pollution now going into our bay. They actually hold all their storm water on sight and rout it to our sewer system to avoid that urban run off of pollution into the bay. We have generally cleaned up our act. It's now dealing with the past pollution problem.

FUDGE: Environmental racism is a catch phrase we've been using for a while. And Hispanics make up many of the populations around the bay, Barrio Logan, places like that. Jose, is that what we're talking about?

ZANE: I'm afraid so. It's more than a coincidence that many of these shipyards and polluting areas are in areas that have been primarily Latino or other color communities as well, and low income also. This is something I believe we can over come, and we can make for a better and cleaner bay for everyone, to fish, and for of course the shipyards to do their business as well.

FUDGE: Once again, listeners, if you want to give us a call, the number is 1-888-895-5727. I think there's -- well, there are a couple of events I want to talk about. One has to do with the water quality board. But I think there's an event coming up tomorrow. Who wants to tell me about that? Is that for you, jill?

WITKOWSKI: Sure, I'd be happy to tell you. San Diego coast keeper puts on a signs of the tide event periodically, and tomorrow's event is called San Diego bay's dirty little secret. It's going to be held at the memorial recreation center at 29 O2 Marcy Avenue tomorrow at 6:00†PM to 9:00†PM. We'll be discussing the problem of pollution in San Diego bay, what the regional board is proposing to do about it, and what local citizens can do to make sure the bay is cleaned up.

FUDGE: Since you talked about what the local regional water quality board wants to do about it or can do about it, let's talk about that. We've got all these toxins down there sitting at the bottom of the bay. What do you do about that? How do you get them out?

WITKOWSKI: California law is great because it allows our regional board to require the discharges to look at what pollution is in the bay and clean it up. This action has been a 20-year process, and we're finally getting to the end of it where the regional board has a proposed cleanup order, and in November, they're going to be having a public hearing about the cleanup order, and deciding whether or not they're actually going to require the shipyards to clean up this pollution.

FUDGE: I was going to and ask you who's going to pay for this?

WITKOWSKI: It would be the shipyards am in facto, BAE, the assistant district attorney of San Diego, SDG&E, potentially, the port of San Diego, and other shipyards that were in the area.

FUDGE: Jose, before we take a couple of calls, what would you like to say in addition to that?

ZANE: I would like to say the harmful effects of eating contaminated fish should be taken into account. The vulnerability of the low income communities should be taken into account when making the new rules and putting in the standards for the shipyards to clean up. It's for everyone to get a chance to eat off it as well as the shipyards to have their business.

FUDGE: Let's take a call from Daniel in Clairemont. Go ahead, you're on Midday Edition.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, and my question is -- I had heard for a long time that a lot of the brake dust goes into the water shed areas and into the bays, and then for a long time, the city had gotten federal money to do street sweeping programs. Then they discontinued that program. I know they had received hundreds of dollars from my neighbors in tickets and fines and even taking their vehicles and not getting their vehicles back. And I'm just wondering what happened to all this revenue and what is going on to help clean up our local bays, fishing bay, and also the big assistant district attorney bay. It's sad when I have visitors here and I tell them you can fish there, but you probably shouldn't eat it, and you can go to shelter island but you probably shouldn't swim.

FUDGE: Okay. Thanks very much. Who'd like to respond and.

ZANE: Well, I'd like to say that this is a process with coast keeper and the health coalition and other groups and the residents of the affected communities are taking charge in empower themselves to make these changes happen. We've got all this legacy. This is a human problem that can be cleaned up. Humans made this, we can clean it up, and it will take time. Maybe not even five years, but if we keep ourselves going, we can make this a better place for everyone. Visitors and people who live here.

FUDGE: And dust from the brake pads?

WITKOWSKI: Last year, there was a law passed by Senator Christine Kehoe that requires people who make the brake pads to change the way they make them to stop using copper to hopefully reduce this problem of brake dust. There's a new law that we're hoping to pass this year also to reduce the amount of copper used in used in paints on the bottom of boats.

ZANE: And empower the affected communities so that when coast keeper environmental health commission goes to the communities and lets them know the science that's happening, and the effects of the pollution that goes into their bodies, we also empower the people to lobby to politicians it, to speak and make speeches in front of City Councils, in front of the port in front of different communities so that they can keep abreast and on top of what's going on. Here.

FUDGE: Is there any question about liability here? Is there any question that these organizations that you mention, which include in facto, were responsible for the toxic pollution in years past and that they are responsible for cleaning it up?

WITKOWSKI: That's one of the things the regional board take a very hard look at and has detailed information about in its report. Now, of course, the shipyards are doing everything they can to say it's not us, and pointing fingers at other places. But I think the regional board has done a good job showing how it is their probation, and how they're responsible for the cleanup.

FUDGE: Eric is in El Cajon. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, sir. I had a question for you ma'am and sir, I work for one of the local shipyards here in San Diego. And we do a lot, a lot to keep the water clean. There's a lot going on in there. I don't think we point fingers at us so much as other companies, other forces. But my question was, now, are the tide comes in every eight hours, it comes in every eight hours. Doesn't the ocean have a lot to do? Doesn't it do its part in clearing up the pollution in the bay? That was my question.

FUDGE: Well? What's the answer?

WITKOWSKI: Well, I'm not a scientist, but I'll do my best to answer based on what I know. Unfortunately with these types of pollution, it actually settles down into the sediment at the bottom of the bay, and doesn't do -- there's not much flushing at this point in the bay that's south of the Coronado bay bridge. While some pollution in other parts of the bay are flushed out by the tide, the pollution in this area, the ship yard sites actually stays put.

FUDGE: So someone's going to have to dig it up.


FUDGE: And if all goes according to plan, or at least if all goes according to the way you would like it to go, when is that going to happen?

WITKOWSKI: Well, hopefully, the cleanup order would be adopted in December, then the responsible parties will have to come up with a specific plan on how they propose to do that. Once that goes forward, hopefully if the cleanup is not appealed into court and get it is held up into court for many years, hopefully one the next year or two, we can have dredgers out there digging this stuff up.

FUDGE: Thanks very much to jill a cow ski, she's staff attorney for San Diego coast keeper.

WITKOWSKI: Thank you.

FUDGE: And thanks to Jose Medina, environmental justice advocate, and residence of national city. Thank you very much Jose.

ZANE: Thank you.