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Growing up in San Diego’s Emerald Hills neighborhood in the 1960s, Charles Davis remembers seeing dump trucks sputtering through his community in search of empty lots to unload their hauls of dirt. He wasn’t sure where they were coming from.

More than four decades later, he has a better idea. Davis is the director of project development for the nonprofit Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, which has bought 55 acres of land to redevelop and revitalize the low income community near Euclid Avenue and Market Street in southeastern San Diego.

But the nonprofit knows or suspects much of that land is polluted. The area carries a history as an aerospace manufacturing hub. And the Jacobs Center has found that some dirt imported in those dump trucks decades ago was contaminated.

The soil from other suburban developments was dumped in an era before environmental laws regulated soil contaminants, and the dumping created a patchwork of potentially environmentally hazardous sites that have made it more difficult — and more expensive — to redevelop there.

“We’re running up against the history of this area, finding that a lot of the pollution in the soil was brought here because the community was used as a dump because it was low income,” said Sharon Hudnall, who works with Davis on the Jacobs Center’s development team. “This community is paying for the development that happened in suburbia.”

Properties that are polluted, or thought to be, are called brownfields, and they are a problem across San Diego County.

On Coronado’s North Island Naval base, military operations have discharged lead and oil into the ground for decades. Along the county’s railroad tracks, industrial businesses have long been abandoned, but pollution from gas tanks that fueled their operations is still in the soil below. Once-bustling manufacturing hubs like southeastern San Diego have deteriorated along with the plants that supported — and polluted — them.

The California Environmental Protection Agency believes there are more than 90,000 brownfields statewide. Regulatory agencies have tracked about 7,000 in San Diego County alone. But those are only the sites that have been recorded because someone has tried to develop them.

Click on the map to search cleanup projects around San Diego.
Source: California Department of Toxic Substances Control

In poorer communities like City Heights and the Diamond neighborhoods, where redevelopment has been slow, residents, public agencies and local developers all believe brownfields are undercounted. Because no one has tried to redevelop much of the land, no one has assessed all the area’s possible contamination.

In downtown San Diego, the development boom of the last decade uncovered scores of polluted sites contaminated by now-defunct gas stations, leather tanneries and dry cleaners. Developers and government cleaned them to allow construction to advance, demonstrating how the promise of profit can spur remediation — despite its cost.

But in San Diego’s Diamond neighborhoods just north of National City, the legacy of the community’s industrial and dumping grounds lives on, evident in vacant, festering lots. And even in those that look fine on the surface.

A site just in front of the Jacobs Center’s headquarters illustrates the extent to which contamination can add unforeseen costs.

As part of a much larger redevelopment plan, the nonprofit plans to build 52 affordable apartments on the plot that rises, curiously, above street level. In investigating its history, Jacobs officials learned that the previous owner had brought in truckloads of soil to elevate the land above the floodplain created by Chollas Creek, which winds through the neighborhood just a few steps away.

So they bored holes several feet into the soil to test it, and learned that it was contaminated with several toxins, including the pesticide DDT, once commonly used before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the suspected carcinogen in 1972.

“This was never an agricultural area, so we realized the soil had been brought in from somewhere else,” likely an agricultural area developed into a suburb, Hudnall said.

The $23 million apartment complex will include underground parking, which means deep excavation of soil that, if not cleared out properly, could expose residents to chemicals or toxic fumes. Cleanup will cost the nonprofit $800,000.

Though it hasn’t tested soil on all its land, the Jacobs Center believes about a dozen of its properties in the community could be contaminated, whose cleanup could add as much as $10 million to their final development costs.

Those costs add yet another hurdle to development in communities where it’s already so slow that government subsidies are needed to entice private investment. Lagging development has been compounded by the economic downturn, dwindling even further the prospect of revitalizing some of the city’s poorer communities.

“In a boom market, a developer can justify the very high acquisition cost, but right now economic activity has stopped to a certain extent, so it’s a lot easier to look into sites that have no issues,” said Eliana Barreiros, a project manager with San Diego’s Redevelopment Agency.

The Redevelopment Agency and the Jacobs Center have been awarded almost $600,000 in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants to study how badly sites are contaminated in City Heights and southeastern San Diego’s Central Imperial area.

Redevelopment zones, by their nature, tend to have higher concentrations of contaminated properties because they are in the city’s oldest areas, Barreiros said.

But which properties are brownfields — and to what degree they’re contaminated — is not exactly known. The grants aim to eliminate the uncertainty and allow developers and the city to decide what type of development — like homes, retail, or industry — might be worth the cost of cleanup.

Dan Johnson, a brownfield expert and consultant with the local office of SCS Engineers, an environmental consulting firm, said cleaning up brownfields has become more important as cities shift toward development patterns that focus on higher density uses and infill in developed areas as a way to limit suburban sprawl.

“If you can fix the brownfield sites, you can see the impacts. There’s this duality. You’re not only cleaning up the environment but you’re also fostering economic development.”

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter:

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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