The biggest obstacle to redeveloping the South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista may not prove to be the 175-foot-tall steel structure embedded in the ground. It may not prove to be the tons of asbestos that will need to be removed from the power plant, or the massive furnaces and turbines that will be extracted and probably sold to a power company.

No, the true impediment to bringing hotels, parks or a convention center to this prime patch of bay-front land in the near future might prove to be microscopic: Tiny traces of nickel, copper, mercury or other pollutants that may lie embedded in the sediment of the San Diego Bay, deposited by power production long ago.

Then again, those particles might not exist at all.

The power plant sat on the idyllic shore of San Diego Bay for more than five decades, sucking in millions of gallons of seawater for cooling each day it operated and then spitting the warmer water back out. But as attention turns toward tearing the plant down and redeveloping the land there, a major question remains: What else, if anything, was in the water that spewed back into the bay?

The Unified Port of San Diego, which owns the power plant site, should have the answers to those questions. It paid a consultant to sample the sediment 13 years ago before buying the plant from San Diego Gas & Electric. But the port didn’t have much information to offer about the report.

There’s also been no move from the port to do new sediment studies, something that’s essential to determining who should pay to clean up any contamination, a process that could end up delaying development of the bay front for years and could cost tens of millions of dollars.

“It’s kinda surprising, because it’s something that we need done, everyone should want it done, the money is there,” said Laura Hunter of the Environmental Health Coalition.

Claude Hendrickson, owner of Dixie Demolition Inc., an Alabama firm that’s managed power plant demolition projects all over the country, said cleaning up sediment in the body of water used to cool a power plant is not usually a costly element of the cleanup process. That’s because of the way the plants used water, Hendrickson said.

“Typically, none of the water that comes into the plant ever crosses the barrier and touches any of the operable equipment. It just flows in, it cools it down and it goes right back out,” Hendrickson said.

Hunter and other environmentalists disagree. A 2001 report by the San Diego Bay Council, a collective of environmental groups, states that in addition to huge amounts of chlorine, the power plant also deposited hundreds of pounds of copper, zinc and nickel into the bay each year.

But SDG&E, which ran the power plant for 40 years before the port took it over, says Hendrickson’s assessment is correct — at least in their case. Furthermore, the company says it has proof.

SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan said the company, unlike the port, has studied the sediment report written in 1998. It clearly concludes that the company’s four decades of power generation had not impacted the sediment at all, Donovan said.

Donovan wouldn’t provide us with a copy of that report. She said it was up to the port to provide it.

After initially saying that no such document existed, port spokesman Ron Powell acknowledged Friday that such a report does, indeed, exist. So what does it conclude? Powell didn’t know.

Apparently, no one at the port has yet read the document.

“We just have not looked at that particular aspect,” Powell said.

Powell said he didn’t know where the document was and couldn’t immediately provide it.

Apart from establishing the extent of the contamination of the bay — if there is any — the other key question is who will have to pay for any environmental mitigation that has to be done to clean up the area.

Powell said a contract between the port and SDG&E divides the cost of dismantling and cleaning up the plant between SDG&E and the port’s current tenant on the site, Houston-based power company Dynegy.

But Donovan said the port actually released SDG&E from any liability when it bought the project.

“The Port expressly assumed responsibility for the decommissioning of the plant and the related cleanup of any contamination on the site,” she said.

As for any contamination that occurred after the port took ownership of the plant, that will have to be established by new sediment tests.

Don MacDonald, an environmental consultant and expert in sediment contamination based in British Columbia, is familiar with the South Bay site. He said doing a comprehensive evaluation would be a complex process that would take at least six months.

Eventually, MacDonald said, the sampling of the bay could establish not only how much contamination is in the sediment, but when those contaminants were deposited and by whom.

That process is called “core dating,” or “radionucleide dating,” MacDonald said, and it could establish whether SDG&E or one of the other operators of the power plant is responsible for any contaminants.

Whether the port will hire MacDonald’s firm or another environmental consultancy to figure that out, however, remains to be seen.

It certainly has the money to pay for such testing. The agency has $22 million of public cash tucked away in a trust that can only be spent on demolishing and cleaning up the power plant.

But in the two and a half months since the plant was shuttered, the only tangible movement from the port towards taking down the power plant and figuring out how to clean up after it has been one meeting the port held with Chula Vista.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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