Foul Ball

The Giants' new stadium site is almost certainly seeping a stew of toxic chemicals into the bay. Why doesn't the government care?

For more than a century, the San Francisco waterfront from the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street south to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard has been continuously used for industrial purposes. Dig a well anywhere along that waterfront, and chances are good you'll come up with a sample of toxic pollutants hundreds of times above hazardous-waste standards.

The tenants currently housed on the Giants' parcel, which is owned by the Port of San Francisco, are typical of the kinds of businesses that have used the area.

The port leases space to sheet metal, carpentry, plumbing, painting, piping, electrical, machining, auto repair, and deep-water-diving businesses, as well as clothing, furniture, and petroleum distributors. The buildings on the northern part of the site were owned by Caltrans until this year, when the port bought them as part of the stadium deal. As late as 1992, businesses in these buildings included a forklift rental and sales company, a metal works, and a printing firm.

Doubtless some of the recent industrial occupants of the land contributed to the toxic problem there. But the earlier history of the site is one of absolutely wanton pollution.

The stadium site is roughly bisected by Berry Street. The portion of the site north of Berry Street was bay bottom until the mid-to-late 1800s, when two gas companies filled it in and constructed coal gasification plants there. Those operations heated coal so it could be broken into its component parts; lamp fluid and other petroleum products were extracted. It was an extremely dirty business, indeed. This northern section also included an oil and paint works, chemical and metals storage facilities, and a lead works.

The part of the site south of Berry Street was still bay water until sometime between 1913 and 1920. Then, sand and, most likely, rubble from the 1906 earthquake were used to fill it in.

This southern portion, nearest the bay, was home to a fumigation plant, a drug manufacturer, and an auto service shop, among other businesses. Beneath the site are underground storage tanks.

The soil under these present and past industrial operations is fill that was used to make shallow parts of the bay into land. The fill was often itself toxic. One of the more popular ways to extend the waterfront after the 1906 earthquake was to toss rubble into the water and cover it with sand. That rubble often had been coated with lead-based paint, which explains why the bayfront is rife with lead-laden hot spots.

Because the site had this land-use history, it was widely expected that Geomatrix would find high levels of toxic chemicals there. Expectations were met.

Among the dizzying array of toxics discovered is a large amount of coal tar, a gooey, sticky substance that spins off four dangerous chemicals: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, known collectively as BTEX. Coal tar was discovered all across the site at various depths, the result most likely of the gasification plant activities.

Almost every possible type of heavy metal was found -- mercury, lead, copper, and arsenic, among others -- as were the vastly dangerous and carcinogenic chemical benzo (a) pyrene and many petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel, and motor oil.

In many instances, the level of toxics found far exceeded federal and state hazardous-waste levels. Some of these readings are astonishing.

Three cyanide hot spots were found; the ground water at those locations contained 70 times, 50 times, and 25 times the state and federal water quality standards for this poison.

Lead was found in the soil in five different hot spots, distributed widely across the site, in amounts ranging from almost double to more than nine times state standards for hazardous waste. (The standard applies if the developer decides to, or is ordered by the state to, move the soil. In that case, soil polluted beyond the standards must be disposed of in clay- or lead-lined landfills, located in arid climates.)

Two nickel hot spots were found in the ground water within approximately 100 feet of the bay waters. In one well, directly in line with the flow of ground water toward the bay, nickel, which poses a great threat to fish reproduction, was detected at almost double the hazardous-waste standard.

But far and away the most dramatic pollution on the site was discovered at a ground water sampling point at the very northern border of the ballpark site. This location is called Well-Point No. 6.

There, testing revealed staggeringly high levels of coal-tar byproducts:
In one spot, more than 3,000 times the water board's accepted level of benzene, a carcinogen.

Nearly four times the board's accepted level of toluene, also a cancer-causer.

And more than 13 times the board's accepted level of xylene, which can disrupt reproductive systems in humans and fish.

There is general scientific consensus that water beneath the land along San Francisco Bay interacts with water from the bay. It is generally agreed that tidal action can, under the right circumstances, wash pollutants from bayfront properties into the bay.

How then did Geomatrix and the Giants convince the Regional Water Quality Control Board (the final authority on the environmental risks of the ballpark project) and all the city agencies that approved the stadium proposal that leaving toxics in the ground and ground water would pose no significant threat to aquatic wildlife?

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