Friday, June 8, 2007 | An empty field directly west of Lindbergh Field looks innocuous, all full of tan soil and dried weeds, and wrapped in a flimsy chain-link fence.

More lurks beneath the surface. The groundwater is contaminated with concentrations of mercury more than 150 times above the permitted human exposure rates. The water has high levels of lead. Air samples have found high levels of carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene and vinyl chloride. The 51-acre site, once used as a Navy landfill, sits adjacent to the airport‘s Terminal 2, about 500 feet from San Diego Bay. The landfill is unlined, lacking the now-requisite layers that keep dirty water and gas from seeping out.

Out of Sight

  • The Issue: Between 1950-1972, the Navy dumped trash in an unlined landfill. The airport authority now wants to excavate the toxic load.
  • What It Means: The airport authority’s $61 million cleanup would return the land to a useable state and allow airport terminal or parking expansion on top.
  • The Bigger Picture: As the authority’s board considers its future master plan, the authority says it wants to maximize the 661 acres on which Lindbergh Field sits.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is proposing a $61 million restoration of the site, which would clean out decades-old rubbish and burned garbage. The authority wants to use the land to either expand terminal gate space or provide more overnight parking for airplanes.

If completed, the cleanup would complete a process that has been ongoing for more than 20 years. The Navy first identified the site as posing a problem in 1986. After the Pentagon decided to close the Naval Training Center in 1993, the Navy launched an extensive evaluation of the risks the site posed. It ultimately decided that cleanup was not critical and transferred the property to the Unified Port of San Diego, which then operated the airport.

The landfill’s restoration highlights a broader problem in San Diego County. Thousands of toxic sites such as the landfill exist throughout the region. Cleanups are often lengthy, expensive projects. Some contaminated sites pose direct threats to human health; others do not. Leaking underground storage tanks sit beneath gas stations. A million-gallon fuel plume crawls across Point Loma. An unexploded ordinance from the military is found in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

“It’s one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind (things),” said John Anderson, a senior engineering geologist at the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. “If it’s not oozing out or getting into the bay, people tend to forget about it. A lot of times people don’t know what could be under their feet.”

The Naval Training Center landfill, which sits across a boat channel from the new NTC development, was used between 1950 and 1971. Its exact contents are unknown but are thought to include more than 400,000 tons of household trash and construction debris. More harmful waste could be underneath the soil, according to Navy reports, including metal-plating wastes, empty pesticide containers and chemicals such as DDT, the pesticide responsible for causing the bald eagle to become an endangered species.

As the Navy moved to close the Naval Training Center, it considered excavating the buried waste. While acknowledging that the excavation was the most effective solution, the Navy passed on paying the project’s then-$49 million cost. Instead, it recommended spending $6 million to improve the groundcover atop the buried trash.

“Welcome to the wily world of risk assessment,” said Laura Hunter, spokeswoman for the National City-based Environmental Health Coalition. “That’s what a lot of polluters do: Analyze it and reanalyze it and risk-assess away the need for cleanup.”

The Navy transferred the property — and the responsibility for cleaning it up — to the city of San Diego in 2000, which in turn gave the land to the Unified Port of San Diego. The port now leases the land to the airport authority. As the authority looks to make short-term improvements to Lindbergh Field, the cleanup provides more land to expand the 661-acre airport’s facilities.

The authority’s year-long cleanup project would excavate all the old waste. Some garbage would be hauled to the region’s landfills. The burn ash would be transferred to certified facilities in Arizona and Nevada. The authority is in the early stages of detailing the project’s environmental impacts. Excavation is not expected to begin until January.

Authority chairman Alan Bersin said the land, once clean, could be used for more aircraft overnight parking spaces or an expansion of the airport’s Terminal 2. The authority will likely decide on the land’s future use this year, Bersin said, in order to address passenger demand projected between 2012 and 2015.

The old landfill, which is regularly monitored, has never definitively been ruled to pose a threat to human health. One groundwater sample from the site showed high concentrations of mercury. High levels of lead have been found, as have a host of carcinogens. But no drinking water wells are nearby and regulators say they do not believe the landfill’s contents have been leaking into the bay.

“Our concern is that the water quality in the bay would be impacted by a seep,” when rainwater soaks in and causes runoff beneath the surface, said John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water regulator. “It hasn’t come up on my radar screen as being a problem.”

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