The City Council’s natural resources committee will soon hold a hearing to determine what went wrong and led to the San Diego Housing Commission’s potentially illegal dumping of lead waste at the city’s landfill.

For a decade, the commission’s contractors didn’t test to determine whether waste from lead paint remediation projects was so polluted with lead that it would’ve been legally deemed hazardous. State law requires heavily polluted loads to be dumped at a hazardous waste landfill, with stricter rules for managing garbage than the city-owned Miramar Landfill.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye, the committee chairwoman, said she wants to know who’s responsible for the potentially illegal dumping and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“The fact still remains for me — how alleged hazardous waste was dumped at the landfill for so long and no one bothered to notice,” Frye said. “We have to still keep looking into this.”

The Housing Commission’s spokeswoman, Maria Velasquez, issued a statement May 28 after our story ran, saying the agency didn’t risk state fines for its dumping. She said the commission, which administers federal grants, wasn’t transporting the waste. State-certified contractors, hired by homeowners and paid for by the commission, are responsible for properly disposing waste, she wrote.

“It is the city’s responsibility — not the Housing Commission’s — to monitor what goes into the landfill,” she wrote.

But other agencies that do similar work take responsibility for the waste and ensure it gets to the correct landfill. They do not, as Velasquez suggested, pin responsibility on landfill inspectors to make sure hazardous waste is caught at a landfill’s entrance.

The Los Angeles Housing Department, for example, tests the waste its projects generate to ensure contractors properly dispose it. Contractors have an inherent conflict that could create a scenario whereby they say waste will require more expensive hazardous disposal and instead take it to a conventional landfill, pocketing the difference. So the department tests the waste and maintains detailed manifests showing where it went.

The Housing Commission has not done either.

Velasquez said in the statement that San Diego was enforcing a local regulation more stringent than California law. The state allows contractors to classify waste as hazardous or not based on their own knowledge of what’s in it.

But the commission has no documentation showing that its contractors followed either regulation. She declined comment, directing questions to Alan Johanns, a city environmental official. He’s out of the office.

State law gives contractors flexibility to use their own knowledge to determine where they should dump debris. But Johanns, the city’s asbestos and lead program manager, did say in a recent interview that it’s vital for contractors to have actual knowledge about how much lead the debris contains — not just a guess.

“If I’m dealing with a 1960 building and I have a board with a thin layer of paint on it — I can’t sit there and say it’s going to pass without a test,” Johanns said. “The key is — you have to have generator knowledge — and how are you acquiring it?”

The city is expected to soon issue a bulletin telling contractors what to do with lead waste. Frye said the council may also have an oversight role to play for the disposal program, at least receiving quarterly or twice-yearly updates on projects and their waste.

“I think everybody would agree we need to do a better job,” she said. “The question is how to do that and where the kinks are and how we properly monitor it.”

— ROB DAVIS

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