Leak From the Deep

Nobody knows for sure what kind of oily polutant is seeping into the water at Fisherman's Wharf

It was a postcard-perfect afternoon at Fisherman's Wharf. A sea lion splashed around next to a row of fishing boats, and a pair of gulls bobbed in the water nearby. Flocks of tourists packed Jefferson Street, weaving in and out of restaurants and shops.

The only unusual addition to this sunny afternoon scene: a bright yellow containment "boom," a long bendable buoy floating in the water, lined with absorbent pads meant to soak up a mysterious substance seeping into the bay. The water surface inside the boom, which was shaped into a half-circle hugging the coast no more than 10 feet offshore, looked distinctly different — glassy, with an opaque sheen.

Port of San Francisco officials are investigating what appears to be a leak, which is near the corner of Jefferson and Hyde streets just off the main tourist drag. But they say they don't know where it's coming from, what exactly it is, or how long it's been seeping into the water. The mysterious leak was spotted last month, bubbling up to the surface behind a row of restaurants and shops. It's not far from where an historic wharf and building (known as Wharf J10) was just demolished. And it's close to the swimmers who gather at Aquatic Park near Fort Mason, as well as Fisherman's Wharf's famous sea lions.

"It is some kind of petroleum, but it doesn't clearly characterize as any standard petroleum product," says Carol Bach, environmental affairs manager for the Port's planning department. All petroleum products, she adds, have a certain signature or what's known as a "fingerprint" that clearly identifies it as, for example, diesel fuel or gasoline. But the seeping substance doesn't yet have a match.

Bach says it's "very, very unlikely that the demolition triggered it," and she says it's a "very, very small-volume" leak.

But try telling that to Angela Cincotta, who with her family own the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company, which has been at Fisherman's Wharf since the 1940s. Her family has been fighting with the Port for years over the condition of Wharf J10 (including the company's fish shed), which made up much of what was known as "Fish Alley," one of the last places where commercial fish processing was still done at Fisherman's Wharf.

In a lawsuit a few years back, the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company argued that the Port failed to meet its responsibility for helping to maintain the substructure at the site, and the company won about $3 million. The Port, a public agency that manages the 7 1/2 miles of shoreline from Hyde Street to India Basin, has a range of responsibilities, including promoting maritime commerce and fisheries. And, in the fish company case, it was found to be responsible for not warning tenants about deteriorating pier conditions.

Angela Cincotta says she and her sister, Annette Traverso, noticed problems soon after demolition of the old wharf started in April. "They released a noxious odor," Angela Cincotta says. "We were dizzy, nauseous, and wanted to throw up." She suspects that the demolition crews have disconnected fuel lines and sent remaining products spilling into the water, and says the crews "yanked pilings straight out of the ground" along with concrete footing uncovering potentially contaminated soil.

There was an environmental impact report done at the site, but Cincotta feels it was insufficient. And they're concerned with the level of response to the leak. "We don't know how far that plume has gone north," Angela Cincotta says.

On a recent walk down the block from her Jefferson Street business, near the corner of Hyde Street where the old pier has been replaced by riprap, Cincotta peered at the brightly colored boom through a pair of binoculars and at a gull floating on the glassy water inside the containment boom. She says the Port is making her out to be the "bad person" simply because she's been trying to draw attention to the seepage.

Whatever caused the leak, there are now a cluster of agencies charged with monitoring it. That includes the Department of Fish and Game, the Coast Guard, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

"None of them have found any deficiency in either the way we are doing the demolition or responding to the seep," the Port's Bach says. "There's really a bit of regulatory oversight."

But Baykeeper Executive Director Deb Self worries all of this is taking too long. "I'm very interested that it's June 22 and they're still not sure what the sure is," Self says. "It's usually not that mysterious."

A Fish and Game official confirmed that they've sent several staff members to the site, and the Coast Guard reports "monitoring" the plume.

Also, ExxonMobil has come in to do some tests of its own, focusing on the soil and groundwater. That's because the company and its predecessors operated a marine terminal that distributed diesel fuel there for about 60 years, dating back to the 1930s. During that time, there were periodic releases from Exxon tanks and pipelines as well as a several-hundred-gallon spill in 1990, according to Bach. But the company has already done quite a bit of cleanup at the site.

"We don't believe that [the leak] is related to our historical operations," says Brian Dunphy, a Houston-based public affairs adviser for ExxonMobil Pipeline Company.

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