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?

Because the Department of the Environment is understaffed and lacking in scientific expertise, the head of the Board of Supervisors' Citizen's Advisory Committee on Hazardous Waste agreed to do a review of the Giants' environmental impact report and the Geomatrix data associated with it -- for free.

Barney Popkin works for Tetratech Inc., a large environmental consulting firm. Popkin makes a living testing toxicity in ground water at industrial sites. He has worked on more than 50 such projects over the years, including several Superfund sites.

Initially, Popkin was shocked by some of Geomatrix's findings and methods. Why had the firm dug wells and soil sampling points so far apart? Why had it averaged levels of toxics, apparently underestimating the toxicity of the site?

But most shocking, in Popkin's eyes, were Geomatrix's conclusions about the Giants' plan for dealing with sewers at the stadi-um site.

As part of the stadium project, the Giants propose to seal a sewer line that runs from east to west through the middle of the property, more or less parallel to the bayfront. That sewer line is old, cracked, leaky, and porous. Apparently, several scientists say, the sewer now acts as a sort of siphon, sucking polluted ground water from the property into the pipe and carrying it away. This siphon effect, it seems, has created two water tables at the stadium site, both of which flow toward the middle of the property and the sewer pipe, rather than into the bay.

The team plans to cap the sewer on Berry Street and build a new sewer line on King Street. If this is done, some experts say, the current, artificial hydraulic system at the site will change; ground water will flow to the bay, as it does in most bayfront plots. Such a flow would probably allow the extremely high levels of petroleum products and BTEX found at Well 6, as well as cyanide found in the northern portion of the site, to migrate toward and into the bay.

"It's clear those contaminants will move to the bay because of the capping of the sewer pipe," Popkin said, explaining what he feels is the biggest environmental risk associated with the Giants' project. (Regional Water Quality Control Board staffers disagree.)

The next week, Popkin went to the board -- an agency with which he has regular contact -- and got a huge surprise.

He learned that the board's standards on all sorts of pollutants and procedures -- on the distance between sampling wells, and on the levels of contaminants allowed to remain in the soil and ground water, for example -- had changed. He was told the changes were all part of the regulatory agency's move to be more lenient with developers, so industrial sites would no longer lie fallow.

These were major regulatory changes that had occurred so quickly and quietly that Popkin, a veteran environmental consultant and hydrologist, had not known of them.

"I felt like Rip Van Winkle," said Popkin.

Nowhere in the three-volume, 1,614-page environmental impact report on the Giants stadium or the five-volume report by Geomatrix does the team or the consulting firm actually discuss the environmental impact of the project.

That is, those reports don't say word one about what the chemicals in the soil and water at the stadium site -- chemicals at levels that vastly exceed applicable state and federal standards -- can and possibly will do to the aquatic life in the area.

In fact, the EIR says very little about wildlife at all. The discussion of traffic around the new ballpark takes 609 pages of the environmental report. The description of wildlife takes two.

Most of the toxins found at the stadium sight are harmful to the reproductive capabilities of fish and birds. Many of the heavy metals and other pollutants found in the area can accumulate in animals as they travel higher up the food chain.

For example, mercury in the mud of the bay bottom can be ingested by a filter-feeding algae. This will be picked up by fish who feed on the algae and accumulate further in sea lions who feed on the fish. These toxics aren't excreted; so with each passing year, the levels grow higher and higher until, as has happened, entire populations in an area drop precipitously or simply disappear.

Perhaps the biggest oversight in assessing the potential for ecological harm was this: Geomatrix discussed the risks posed by individual chemicals it found in elevated levels. It took those individual chemicals and compared them to the nearest applicable standards and found them, individually, to be within a comfort range.

Greg Karras, the lead biologist for Communities for a Better Environment, says the real threat represented by the pollutants buried at the Giants ballpark lies in a combination of all of the chemicals there -- and those already found in the sediment in China Basin. That pollutants can have a cumulative impact is not a new or wacky theory; it is well-established science.

Geomatrix and the Giants didn't make any effort to calculate the cumulative effects of a possible release of the toxics contained in the soil and water beneath the new ballpark.

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