Thursday, September 2, 1999
Peninsula That jog, bike ride or walk with the baby stroller you often take on Monterey''s recreational trail may not be as healthy as you think. While the city-owned San Carlos Park and the adjacent portion of the recreation trail projects have been completed for some time, cleanup efforts of hazardous materials lurking underneath have yet to receive a clean bill of health by state and county regulatory agencies. That error of omission will be discussed next Wednesday at the California Regional Water Quality Control Board (CRWQCB) meeting in San Luis Obispo, when Dan Summers, the would-be developer of the now defunct Cannery Row Marketplace, plans to ask the regional water board for permission to clean up the Marketplace site. The Marketplace project was voted down by the Monterey City Council Aug. 25. Now, developer Summers is seeking to remediate the toxic material on his property so he can subdivide it and sell it. In seeking contaminant remediation, Summers says he will seek permission to remove and dispose of leaky fuel storage tanks and possibly the 1940s-era Stohan''s Building, which stands on his property. Summers will also ask the regional water board to step in as the lead, or principle, agency in directing the clean up of hazardous materials on his property. Illegal levels of petroleum hydrocarbons, a known carcinogen, and a number of hazardous leaks have been documented on the Marketplace site since 1989. At the crux of Summers'' argument is the apparent lack of closure on the city of Monterey''s sites. Summers will use that as evidence that the Monterey County Health Department is not doing its job and that the state agency should step in and take the lead. We''re going to ask the board to do its job; says Rosanna Garrison, president of Augeas Corporation, Summers'' environmental consultant. A recent examination of Monterey County Environmental Health Department files by Garrison revealed a glaring omission: There was no required letter of closure stating that toxic substance levels found on the projects'' sites were determined to be safe by the county health department and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. An August 12 letter from California Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Officer Roger Briggs to Summers confirmed Garrison''s discovery, stating that the cleanup files for the Monterey Recreation Trail and San Carlos Beach Park are "not closed." The county health department and regional water board never officially approved the clean up of hazardous petroleum hydrocarbons on the sites. What exactly "not closed" means, however, is unclear, and whether citizens should be concerned about a possible health hazard seems to be a matter for debate. According to Jon Jennings, chief of hazardous materials for the Monterey County Health Department, the missing letter doesn''t mean that the sites are still contaminated. I can''t give a good reason why a closure letter was not in the file; says Jennings, "but all the documentation shows that the site has been cleaned up. We''re satisfied that the contamination is not an issue any more." Be that as it may, says Garrison, what''s disturbing to her is an apparent lack of process and follow-through, and that anyone reviewing county files is at a loss to conclude that the sites are clean and safe. "There is a very strict protocol that has to be followed, says Garrison. "Even if there aren''t harmful levels of contaminants, state guidelines [for remediating hazardous materials] are not being adhered to by the city and county of Monterey." Garrison reviewed the Rec Trail and San Carlos Park files after reading the Cannery Row Marketplace Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that stated contaminants were allowed by the county health department to remain in place on other area sites. In a June 23 letter to the city of Monterey, county Environmental Health Director Walter Wong stated that report was wrong, and that his department only allows contaminants to stay in place under very specific conditions. The extent of the contamination on the Rec Trail site adjacent to the present-day San Carlos Park was disclosed in a 1988 investigation by Terratech, the city''s environmental consultant. The report details heavy petroleum hydrocarbon contamination of the Rec Trail site''s soil and in shallow groundwater beneath the site. Many of the sites tested were well above the "actions" level, levels which are considered hazardous and by law require clean up. The 1988 report indicates that the contamination was the result of a storage "tank farm" previously owned on the site by the Associated Oil Co. The tanks contained gasoline, diesel fuel and crude oil. The report shows that a 1924 fire and explosion at the site released thousands of gallons of petroleum, which flowed over the Rec Trail site and into Monterey Bay. Soil at the San Carlos Park site, according to a Jan. 1996 letter to the county from Terratech, was also contaminated with high levels of petroleum hydrocarbons. However, city and county officials say the cleanup is complete for both the Rec Trail and the park, and a letter of closure will be issued this week for the San Carlos Park site. As for the Rec Trail site, Monterey Public Works Director Bill Reichmuth says the city is in the process of gathering the paperwork to close that site as well. "The paperwork just never caught up," he says. "Clearly, the site is safe to use." A 1995 follow-up report from Terratech shows that contamination still exists on the Rec Trail site, but that while "the petroleum contamination is admittedly severe...[it is] not toxic. There is no risk of contact from the public using the Recreational Trail." The report also concludes that the petroleum contaminants were degrading. Hydrocarbon contamination has been left in place on various city sites, says Reichmuth, but only with approval from county environmental health and the regional water board. Heavy petroleum materials "one notch lighter than asphalt" have been left safely in place, he says, with no threat of movement into the water table or health hazard to humans. "It''s no more hazardous than the asphalt on the street," says Reichmuth. Hazardous waste, says Jon Goni, a water resources engineer with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, can be left in place if it shows no threat to the environment or if it''s "not feasible" to remove it, such as if the contamination exists underneath a building. However, Goni suggests that, as far as the regional water board is concerned, some investigation on the city sites may still be needed. "I have no reason to not believe what the county says," Goni says, "[but] my understanding is that these were city projects and that the county inherited the lead [agency responsibility], and [the projects] were not necessarily the highest priority. The city has to meet with the county to decide whether or not more cleanup is needed." While the county health department, which also acts as the city of Monterey''s health agency, was involved with the projects, the lead agency responsible for monitoring hazardous materials cleanup at the time was the Monterey Fire Department. The health department took over as lead agency in 1993. As far as the Marketplace site goes, the county and the city prohibited cleanup procedures to go forward while the Marketplace project was undergoing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process because a half-buried railroad tank and two more above-ground tanks were identified as potentially historic artifacts by the project''s EIR. "This is a misuse of CEQA," says Garrison. "What is clear is [the county and city] never should have misused the environmental laws that way." Garrison argues that allowing the railroad car--which once stored bunker fuel--to remain in place is a violation of federal and state laws requiring underground storage tanks (USTs) to be retrofitted or replaced. The deadline to comply with UST regulations was last December. Garrison''s arguments are supported by a June, 1998 memo to Wong from Senior Deputy County Counsel Efren N. Iglesia, in which Iglesia opines that the removal of fuel tanks in accordance with UST laws is exempt from CEQA. Additionally, the city removed two railcars from the San Carlos Park site in 1996 without going through the CEQA process. Garrison also argues that the above-ground tanks, also contaminated with petroleum, are "legal chattel," and under real estate law not considered part of the property, and therefore also exempt form CEQA. But whether Summers will allowed to remove the tanks and Stohan''s, says Goni, is still up to the Monterey City Council. "We''re reluctant to assume the lead from the local agency," he says, "and reluctant to order the removal of historic artifacts. The city has to take action as to what historical artifacts can be saved."