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?

The environmental impact report for the San Francisco Giants' planned ballpark at China Basin expresses a certain eloquent regard for the Pacific herring, which spawns in the bay nearby.

The report, prepared for the Giants in part by the environmental firm of Geomatrix Consultants Inc., points out the economic importance of Clupea harengus pallasi (its roe is exported to Japan) and establishes the threat that construction of the bayside ballpark poses to the herring.

Rain and site watering (needed to keep toxic dust particles from becoming airborne and harming workers) could, the report notes, wash exposed soil into the bay during construction, cutting off sunlight and oxygen and killing algae the herring feed on. The soil-laden runoff, the report says, could also cover and choke the eggs that herring deposit on bay-bottom rocks in the area. And, the report acknowledges, the soil at the ballpark site is horribly toxic, and the chemicals and metals in the dirt, if washed into the bay, could deform herring offspring.

The environmental impact report therefore proposes all manner of measures to reduce the risk to the herring of San Francisco Bay: When tugboats are used to assist construction from the bay side of the project, the Giants will contract with "shallow-draft" tugs that cut down on churning that might keep toxic runoff suspended in the water. Likewise, tugboat captains will be told to run their engines at low speeds. When the team drives columns into the underwater soil to support the bayside portion of the ballpark, it will throw up a curtain around the area to contain any toxic soil released. Biologists and fisheries experts will be called in to monitor herring hatches. The team will even require construction companies to use catch nets when working over water, so dropped tools don't fall into the channel.

But as elaborate as the Giants' herring-protection program seems, it represents little but icing on a toxic cake.

Because of a strange mixture of lax or nonexistent regulation, scientific uncertainty, weird politics, and garden-variety greed, the toxic soil the Giants will take great pains to keep from washing into the bay during construction will remain in place underneath the stadium once it is finished in the year 2000.

Those pollutants are unlikely to pose a direct threat to humans; except for the baseball field itself, much of the stadium site will be covered with concrete that will keep toxics and people separate.

But, environmental experts agree, tidal action can and probably will move buried pollutants from the stadium site into San Francisco Bay. Those pollutants clearly are threats to some of the aquatic life in the bay.

Metals in the soil of the stadium site are known to impede the ability of harbor seals and sea lions to process oxygen. (Both species are legally protected and call China Basin Channel home.) Other chemicals found on the site are carcinogenic; can damage the reproductive systems of fish, birds, and seals and sea lions; and may kill the clams, worms, and algae the birds and fish feed on. Among the avian species that live on the channel is the California brown pelican, an endangered species.

"What's been going into the bay all along will continue going into the bay after the ballpark is built," says Steve Morse, the head of the Regional Water Quality Control Board's toxic cleanup division, which signed off on the Giants' plans to leave the toxic soil and ground water in place.

Environmental groups say removing the contaminated soil from the stadium site would be relatively inexpensive, costing the team approximately $5 million. City construction projects have routinely called for this type of polluted soil to be excavated and moved to hazardous-waste landfills. At press time, environmentalists were still negotiating in secret sessions with the team, hoping to extract concessions and avoid a lawsuit. The deadline for the lawsuit and the negotiations was Sept. 30.

Regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, the city of San Francisco and the state of California have decided to allow the Giants to ignore the chemical stew under their new stadium. That decision could set a precedent for other polluted land lining the city's bayfront -- and pose a long-term pollution threat to the bay.

And what is in the stew the government says can stay beneath Pacific Bell Ballpark?

Lead, nickel, toluene, mercury, benzene, and arsenic, among other poisons and carcinogens. At levels many, many times higher than the legal definition for toxic waste.

By now every baseball fan, and almost every San Franciscan, knows that the new Giants stadium will be built on the bayfront, on a site bordered by Third and Second streets and King Street and the bay at the mouth of China Basin Channel. The Giants' publicity machine makes the most of this waterfront site in precious commercials that show a home-run ball landing in the bay.

Baseballs, even many of them, probably could not harm the aquatic environment of China Basin.

But that environment has real problems; it is heavily compromised by extremely dangerous industrial toxins. One might say it's teetering on a precipice. No aquatic life survives at the west end of the channel because the sediment is highly polluted by ammonia and sulfides that came from sewage. The environmental group Communities for a Better Environment deemed the mouth of the channel a toxic hot-spot in the mid-'80s because of the elevated levels of heavy metals -- including nickel, lead, and selenium -- in the bay mud there.

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?

You might say it was a step-by-step process.
First, the consultants decided the contaminants found in the soil of the site need not be considered in their analysis. Geomatrix assumed that most of the worst contaminants had been placed in the ground years or decades ago, and all of the chemicals that would leach from the soil into the ground water had had already done so.

Then, Geomatrix averaged the levels of toxics it found in its underground water testing program. Although there were hot spots, where contaminant levels greatly exceeded state hazardous-waste standards, the averages of the levels at many wells produced results that exceeded the standards by, at most, a factor of 10. The Giants' environmental consultants argued that this level of pollution did not pose a significant environmental threat.

Also, the consulting firm traveled a tortured analytical course to conclude that the contaminants found at Well-Point No. 6 -- the hot-hot spot, where carcinogenic petroleum byproducts abounded in the ground water -- should simply be ignored. Geomatrix concluded that Well-Point 6 was stable, that ground water located there would not move into the bay. Geomatrix supported this conclusion by noting that wells closer to the bay, in the direction of ground-water flow, found none of the pollutants seen in Well-Point 6. Happy with the findings from the relatively unpolluted wells, Geomatrix surmised that the BTEX was bound to coal tar in the soil and wasn't moving.

This argument is not, by any means, universally accepted as true.
Two expert toxicologists say that if BTEX was detected as a separate compound, it had already dissolved out of the coal tar, and would migrate freely. But even if the BTEX was, indeed, chemically connected to the coal tar, it probably would not remain there for long. BTEX, by its very nature, separates from coal tar. "That's what it does," says Chris Shirley, the lead scientist for ARC Ecology, a nonprofit group advocating for the cleanup of local military sites. Stan Smucker, head toxicologist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency's western region, agrees with Shirley's assessment.

Yet, by assuming that the pollution detected in Well 6 wasn't going to migrate, Geomatrix was able to exclude the incredibly high levels of toxics found there from the firm's assessment of the risks to aquatic wildlife posed by underground pollutants on the stadium site.

Moreover, Geomatrix didn't conduct tests that could have turned up evidence damaging to the thesis that underground pollutants could be safely left in place. For example, no test was done to assess the solubility of the chemicals in the soil. That means Geomatrix didn't scientifically ask what is perhaps the key environmental question related to the stadium site: Can chemicals in the soil continue to migrate into the ground water and, by mixing with tidewater, into the bay?

Other study practices have come into question. The firm drilled test wells 120 feet to 240 feet apart -- so far distant that, other environmental experts suggest, the firm most likely missed several hot pollution spots. The ground water under one building on the site was left almost completely untested.

And the firm tested the ground water during just one season -- the summer dry season, when the ground-water table is depressed and may not be reached with the shallow test wells used by Geomatrix. A more thorough study would have tested the water table four times over each season and at far deeper levels.

To test the ground water only once is considered risky if not foolhardy. Lots of toxic contaminants could potentially be missed and any results flowing from the one "snapshot" test are not entirely reliable.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board seemed to bend over backward to accept all of Geomatrix's arguments for leaving polluted soil and ground water in place at the stadium site. The board even added arguments that helped the Giants avoid the cost of cleaning up the site.

And some of that bending and helping does not seem to be supported by science or logic.

For example, board staffers echoed Geomatrix's argument that any leaching of toxics from soil into ground water happened long ago and is no longer occurring. That argument does not seem to have a scientific basis. Asked what studies back his agency's conclusions about leaching of chemicals and movement of water on the stadium site, Vic Pal, the water board's project manager on the Giants stadium, says, "That's our intuition."

And Pal readily admits that the water board doesn't know very much about ground water to surface water migration of toxics. "It's an area we've only recently looked at," he says. "Just since the '90s."

To be fair, while they intuited their way to a Giants-friendly conclusion, water board staffers operated in a near total regulatory vacuum that reflects a lack of scientific study. Most of the levels and standards Geomatrix and the water board used as yardsticks for toxic pollution apply to what are called "point discharges" -- that is, pipes spitting water into a bay or a river, usually from sewage treatment plants. These kinds of discharges are easy to measure and regulate. When you have soil leaching into ground water, which then seeps into surface water -- in the Giants' case, the bay -- measurement and regulation are admittedly difficult.

Pal explains the situation this way: "There are no numerical standards that are applicable."

If there was a lack of rigid regulatory standards, the water board responded oddly to it. In one instance, the board simply changed the standard that did exist. When faced with levels of diesel, gasoline, and motor oil that exceeded the water board's own guidelines for ground water, the board simply changed the rules, at the last minute, without public hearings or a thorough evaluation of the new levels.

And where did the water board get these new levels, the ones that suddenly made the pollution levels measured at the stadium site nearly a year earlier seem reasonable?

The new guidelines for petroleum pollution of ground water were based on unverified tests conducted by fuel companies that polluted soil beneath San Francisco International Airport and are being asked to clean up the mess. In some cases, the airport tenants' proposed guidelines for petroleum pollution were 3,000 times higher than those the water board had used as recently as 1995.

When asked why the alleged polluters' guidelines were used when judging the site for the Giants stadium, Pal said, "They seemed more reasonable to us."

He elaborated on that statement in a striking way. Pal said the pollution guidelines proposed by firms alleged to have fouled the ground and water beneath the airport represented a more relevant standard for the stadium site than the water quality standards propounded by the federal EPA.

Early this year, Baykeeper, a nonprofit group that monitors bay polluters, realized that the pace of development under Mayor Willie Brown's administration had picked up exponentially, and that the largest developments were taking place on the city's highly toxic industrial waterfront.

In response, the group founded the Clean Waterfront Project, which is aimed at cajoling developers into conducting stringent cleanups on the waterfront. The waterfront project's director, Leslie Caplan, a politically inexperienced lawyer and Canadian transplant, quickly began to look at the Giants' stadium proposal and to wonder about the foundation of its environmental process. Nothing about that process seemed quite right.

First, Geomatrix was being paid by the Giants. How could anyone expect the firm's findings to be completely impartial?

Perhaps the biggest hole Baykeeper found in the environmental impact report prepared for the Giants, however, involved 40 acres of land south of China Basin Channel, which the team plans to use for a parking lot. The land, pieces of which are owned by Catellus Development Corp. and the Port of San Francisco, is at least as highly contaminated as the ballpark site.

The Giants' environmental consultants did not study the parking site as part of the stadium project.

The land to be used for parking supported the same types of industrial uses as the ballpark site. But the proposed parking lot is connected to a disconcerting bit of history that does not apply to the ballpark site itself: For most of the 1980s and '90s, a toxic-waste handler, H&H Shipping Services, operated on the future Giants parking lot. H&H cleaned out toxic waste storage tanks and sawed them into scrap metal, among other risky activities.

The Giants' explanation of the decision not to test the land seems less than compelling: The team said plans to lease the land from Catellus and the port were not completed until after Geomatrix had drawn up its work plan for the review of the ballpark site.

City and state officials accepted that explanation without question.
At every public hearing on the environmental review of or the lease proposal for the stadium site, Baykeeper asked for a delay and a more thorough study. For the most part, no one paid attention; planning commissioners, city supervisors, and port officials all voted the project through.

Watching this fast-track process, Caplan came to a realization: The Giants weren't the only ones with a financial incentive to minimize the potential harm of leaving the polluted land at the stadium site intact. The city had the same motivation.

The port owns the land that will become the stadium; the Giants will lease it for about $1.2 million a year. If an intensive cleanup were required, the cost of that remediation would have to be calculated into the fair market rent paid by the Giants.

And Paul Osmundson, the port's development director, says that would have cost the port and the city significant amounts of money.

Osmundson worked on the Embarcadero Roadway Project, where the city dug up miles of waterfront to lay down a median divider with palm trees, and watched as the water board and the state EPA required the city to pay millions of dollars for disposal of contaminated bayfront dirt in landfills in Utah.

"Had the regulatory agencies required that kind of cleanup [for the new Giants stadium], the port would not have gotten anything," Osmundson says. "The fair market value would have been zero."

Eventually, however, one member of the Board of Supervisors listened to Baykeeper. Leslie Katz asked the city's underfunded Department of the Environment to conduct a review of Geomatrix's findings.

That same week, the water board approved the Giants' lease and environmental review, rendering the Department of the Environment's findings essentially meaningless. (The study will be published sometime this month.) But the request for such a study opened a window on the extremely questionable process by which the Giants obtained environmental approval for a baseball stadium on China Basin.

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.

When asked why, the Giants consultant said, "Although the possibility exists that an additive effect could result from simultaneous exposure to multiple chemicals of potential ecological concern, current practice is to evaluate [toxic] risks individually using conservative water quality criteria comparisons in screening-level ecological risk evaluations."

In other words: They did not study such effects, because they didn't have to.

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