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In April 2005, staff did finally issue a proposed Cleanup and Abatement Order (CAO) for contaminated sediments in the bay. The proposed cleanup, which made front page news in San Diego, would require dredging and proper disposal of 885,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment on about 60 acres just south of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, with an estimated cost of $96 million.

While environmental groups sought an even more protective cleanup to full background levels (which would have removed one million cubic yards of toxic sediment), we were supportive of the staff’s proposal. Unfortunately, this draft plan is where we are currently stalled, with no formal hearings set and no end in sight.

The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board’s approach to cleaning up San Diego Bay has been nothing short of dismal, and nothing leads me to believe they will actually adopt a protective plan without intervention. I hearken back to then-board member Janet Keller’s comments at a February 2001 hearing (one of several) on this issue, “I was not surprised, like Laurie [Black, another former Board member] I was shocked when I got this recommendation in the mail. We’ve been dealing with this issue for such a long time, and now it seems like another stonewall. And I was ready to come in here today and go for Option 1 to background level.” (Emphasis added)

The latest delay is almost too much to believe (or bear) – the board is securing $152,000 to hire a contractor who has been digitizing the administrative record since October, a process which staff expects to take “several more months,” though no precise schedule has been proposed. While I applaud the board’s efforts to “go paperless,” this is just one in a long line of delays that calls into question the competence of this board and staff.

Where is the accountability? Where are our elected officials clamoring for action? When will we actually have a cleanup plan in place that will restore the bay’s ecosystem and protect the health of San Diegans?

Coastkeeper and other local groups (EHC, Surfrider, Sierra Club and Audubon) have been doing what we can to push the cleanup along through regulatory process, trying to work with the agency that is entrusted with protecting our waters. As you might guess form our history, Coastkeeper has (and continues to) explore other options, including legislative fixes or litigation to move this process along. Despite what many people think, though, environmental litigation is difficult to bring, and almost impossible when agencies (who are given tremendous discretion) are taking any steps to move forward, regardless of how slow or even tortured the pace. Still, if we cannot get some resolution on this issue in the next few months, we will be forced to revisit these options.

In the meantime, environmental groups have been getting other agencies to at least take a public stand on the issue, pushing the Port to repost the Bay with advisories and most recently getting the State Lands Commission to adopt a resolution calling on the Regional Water Board to adopt a protective cleanup plan as ‘expeditiously as possible. Unfortunately, no matter how many other agencies ‘see the light’, it is the Regional Board that must ultimately act.

What You Can Do

First, contact the governor to make sure he places three people on the board who are committed to leading this effort to cleanup San Diego Bay’s toxic legacy (instructions in my second post). I do not lay the current problem at the feet of this administration. After initially appointing board-members that did truly place environmental protection first, then-Governor Gray Davis backtracked, removing key board-members (like then-Chairman Baglin), who would likely not have tolerated the current quagmire. But it is Governor Schwarzenegger who can now correct this mess by making good appointments.

Second, contact the chair of the State Water Board (which oversees nine separate Regional Boards) Tam Doduc via email or at 916-341-5611 to let her know you are frustrated at he pace of Regional Water Board action and want to see the State Water Board take a more active role in establishing a protective cleanup in San Diego.

Lastly, contact your local, state and federal elected officials to let them you know you would like them to take an active role in pushing a cleanup along.

– BRUCE REZNIK

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