Wednesday, March 14, 2007 | For a vacant lot wedged on the border of two cities, the chunk of land tucked near the intersection of 69th Street and Imperial Avenue has had more than its share of controversy over the last several years. As federal prosecutors investigate the history of the lot, residents fight over its future — a 78-home development was approved for the site last fall.

The land-use debate consists of the usual ingredients, disgruntled neighbors fearing a traffic invasion included. But the land designated for a new housing development holds more questions than a typical neighborhood vacant lot. Controversy has swirled over the 16-acre lot for nearly a decade, with players ranging from neighborhood folks to federal prosecutors alleging that asbestos fibers leaked into the air when underground pipes were excavated nearly seven years ago. One of the region’s largest corporations’ subsidiary has been federally indicted twice over the hullabaloo, and the controversy once constituted a mayoral candidate’s opposition to the sitting mayor.

Despite state-regulated tests labeling the lot clean and safe for redevelopment in 2004, the dust still hasn’t settled in the fight over this tract. Many of the residents in the adjacent city of San Diego neighborhood of Encanto believe asbestos still lies in the ground and floats in the air. Construction, they say, would stir that up and expose them to even more harm. They’re certain their families and neighbors will contract the lung problems associated with exposure to asbestos, which some claim they’ve sustained.

But officials in Lemon Grove, the other city on whose border the lot sits, say the state’s given the site a clean bill of health. The city recognizes the indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office against San Diego Gas & Electric and the individuals responsible for cleaning out underground pipes. But the feds are talking about what may have happened on the site years ago, Lemon Grove officials say, not necessarily what the site should look like now or in years to come.

Still, neighbors believe the asbestos has not been entirely eradicated, and worry new construction would send more hazardous fibers into the lungs of their kids. They wonder if such a situation would happen in a neighborhood like La Jolla.

“They think we don’t matter,” said resident April Flake, whose home abuts the site.

The Old Encanto Gas Holder Facility

For decades, the lot held natural gas underground as a sort of manmade version of the natural rock formations typically used by utility companies. The gas was stored in more than nine miles worth of pipes until it went through a compressor and was pressurized before being piped to consumer’s homes.

Peter Hidalgo, spokesman for SDG&E called the facility a sort of “savings account” for natural gas, one that the utility decided it no longer needed in the mid-1990s. In order to sell the site to a developer, the utility solicited a contractor to clear the site of the pipes and compressor.

Some environmental site assessments in 1998 and 1999 revealed that a coating on the pipes underground contained asbestos, prosecutors allege in the indictments filed against the utility. They say the workers neglected to follow particular federal protocol standards when dealing with the type of asbestos that was found in those reports — the friable kind that can be crumbled by hand and can be deadly.

The utility contracted the excavation of the site to a company called IT Corporation, for which defendant Kyle Rheubottom served as project superintendent. Rheubottom’s SDG&E contacts were both staffers in the Environmental Department — Jacquelyn McHugh, a supervisor, and David “Willy” Williamson, an environment specialist. Both are named in the indictment.

The indictments purport the three employees and the utility itself conducted the site excavation improperly, including not wetting the asbestos-containing material before exposing it to air and not keeping it in leak-proof bins once exposed. The defendants allegedly acted as if there was not enough of asbestos to warrant government supervision of the project — even though the previous environmental report, which the utility had shared with the contractor, disputed that.

When a regulating agency did serve Williamson with a notice of violation a few months into the excavation, he told the government he was a certified asbestos consultant when he actually was not, prosecutors allege.

“They wouldn’t listen to us,” said Terry Dutton, an administrator for the county’s Air Pollutant Control District, which enforces the Environmental Protection Agency’s air-quality standards. “We consistently told them that it was [regulated asbestos-containing material] and they wouldn’t listen.”

Attorneys for the defendants dispute the claims of illegal handling of the material and cleanup of the site. They say the defendants acted entirely appropriately based on the knowledge they had of the chemical makeup of the site at the time.

“The suit is groundless from our perspective,” said Dorn Bishop, the attorney representing Williamson. “There’s absolutely no evidence that any asbestos was released in the first place — not a single fiber of asbestos. Not a single sample that’s ever been produced that has shown any asbestos being released into the environment.”

Federal prosecutors first indicted the same defendants in January 2006, a case that was dismissed by Judge Dana Sabraw in November because of what assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson called an omission of proper asbestos-testing language.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney’s Office re-indicted the utility and the employees on essentially the same charges. Pierson said she couldn’t speak about anything beyond the information in the indictments.

But Greg Vega, the attorney representing SDG&E, said Sabraw dismissed the charges in November because the prosecutors had failed to produce any damning evidence of the utility’s or the employees’ actual interaction with hazardous material.

“We are confident that they still haven’t done the required tests,” he said last week. Vega and his team expect they’ll be able to have the case dismissed again before it reaches trial, set for June 4.

A Clean Bill of Health

After the excavation, the utility still planned to turn the site over to a developer, but officials were aware of the community unease about the health of the land and the air in the neighborhood near the site. SDG&E entered a voluntary cleanup agreement with the state department of Toxic Substances Control in August 2001, a few months after the contractor had finished the excavation.

That department took more than 200 land and air samples and found no asbestos fibers in that sampling, said Tom Cota, Southern California branch chief for the department. Because it was a voluntary cleanup agreement, the organization largely responsible for carrying out the site tests and drawing conclusions was Sempra, SDG&E’s parent company.

The state testers directed the utility to ask residents to point out suspicious spots and also to conduct random samplings, according to the department’s report. The department was satisfied by June 2004 that “the site poses no risk to the community and may be considered safe for redevelopment, up to and including residential land use.”

Cota said the department doesn’t make land-use decisions, but can recommend certain sites remain industrial or undisturbed if it senses a community might be harmed otherwise. This site in particular, because of the findings from the cleanup, is now suitable for even a park or a playground, he said.

But Cota stressed that the study was not designed to determine whether there had ever been a hazard to neighborhood residents. “We didn’t get involved in any of the ongoing enforcement actions,” Cota said. “What we were looking at was the current site conditions.”

A county civil suit filed in August 2005 alleged the utility and the same employees and contractor improperly removed asbestos from the site. That suit was dropped in March 2006 to avoid interfering with the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s case, county officials said.

The Future Encanto Gas Holder Site: Citrus Heights?

Using the state’s clean bill of health as a foundation, the Lemon Grove City Council approved a plan in October that would yield 78 homes in a development called Citrus Heights. Council members stipulated that the developer, Carter Reese and Associates, will have to pay an independent contractor to monitor the site’s health during construction. Construction has yet to begin on the site.

Mary Teresa Sessom, Lemon Grove mayor, said before the state completed its “fine-tooth comb” site testing, she had many of the same concerns as the residents of the neighborhood.

Now the residents are just averse to nearly 80 new homes — and as many homes’ worth of traffic — being added to their neighborhood, she said.

“I think 90 percent of the people out there are satisfied,” Sessom said. “I see it now as a not-in-my-backyard kind of thing.”

But Flake, whose home is adjacent to the site, remembers seeing dead birds littered throughout the neighborhood and white dust blanketing cars during the excavation. John Gonzales, another neighbor who lives on Akins Road, said he doesn’t expect the housing development to ever materialize. Gonzales said it’s his duty to assemble and educate all of the homeowners within 1,000 feet of the site.

Despite the fact the federal case has already been dismissed once, these residents vow they’ll continue to fight even if the federal prosecutors lose. They’re convinced the workers did something wrong and they don’t trust the state’s report because of SDG&E’s involvement. Their potential evidence — respiratory illness and the like — may not surface for decades. So they’ve searched for legal representation to sue SDG&E for failing to alert them of the alleged asbestos-releasing activity in their neighborhood. They haven’t found a willing attorney yet.

Gonzales, Flake and some other neighbors, including Eric Wiggin and Erica Zamora, say they want to establish a fund that will pay medical bills for residents who have already or who will — they’re sure of it — encounter the respiratory problems associated with exposure to the friable asbestos. So far, they have only anecdotal evidence, hearing of a resident living on the other side of the lot suffering from a respiratory illness.

Wiggin found the City Council’s stipulation that the developer include a park in Citrus Heights ridiculous.

“They asked for a park because they were worried about kids playing in the street, but they didn’t worry about kids playing in asbestos,” he said. “Why disturb it, if there’s even a possibility that there’s still asbestos?”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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