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The San Diego Chargers have thrown out lots of claims about roadblocks to building a new stadium in Mission Valley since the mayor’s task force recommended that location.

Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani, the team’s longtime stadium wars point man, has repeatedly included a gas plume under Qualcomm Stadium and its parking lots on his list of the team’s beefs with building in Mission Valley.

We’ll tackle his claims about the plume one by one.

Statement: The (Qualcomm) site is polluted by a huge plume that has leaked from the gas tanks there,” Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani said in a March 16 KPBS interview.

Determination: Huckster Propaganda

It’s true that there was once a gas plume under Qualcomm Stadium.

Here’s what I wrote about it a couple weeks ago:

A site just north of the stadium, known as the Mission Valley tank farm, has served as San Diego County’s gas hub since the early 1960s. More than 20 years ago, petroleum seeped out of the site’s pipes, some of it in small amounts that were initially untraceable.

That petroleum and its byproducts flowed south, traveling 25 feet underground beneath Qualcomm Stadium and its parking lots, around the San Diego River and almost to Interstate 805.

But after years of push-pull over who was responsible for getting rid of the contamination, Texas-based gasoline giant Kinder Morgan began a cleanup effort it says has cost at least $75 million.

The San Diego County Regional Water Quality Control Board gave the company’s soil contamination cleanup its full seal of approval in December 2013.

It’s likely to sign off on the groundwater portion of the decontamination effort, which involved different cleanup methods, in coming weeks.

Sean McClain, a Water Board geologist who’s been overseeing the cleanup, has said maps and the agency’s reviews show just how far the property’s come.

“This is probably one of the most successful cleanups that we have in the county,” McClain told me earlier this month.

This before and after map, included in a recent Kinder Morgan report to the Water Board, makes it clear the effort has come a long way.

MTBE at Qualcomm Stadium, 2002 and 2014 (slide the cursor across the map to see the levels change)

[image-comparator left=”http://voiceofsandiego.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/4A-120021.jpg” right=”http://voiceofsandiego.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/4G-120021.jpg” method=”overlay” width=”650px” link_images=”false” overlayed_slider=”false” classes=”hover”][/image-comparator]

Kinder Morgan included the above maps, produced by consulting firm Arcadis, in its latest monitoring report to the Water Board. To download the original 2002 image, click here; to download the original 2014 image, click here.

We dub a claim huckster propaganda when a statement is not only inaccurate but it’s reasonable to expect the person who made it knew that and said it anyway to gain an advantage.

Fabiani’s claim that there’s a plume under Qualcomm Stadium fits the bill.

There’s not a gas plume under the stadium anymore – and the Chargers are almost certainly aware of that.

I’ve reported on it multiple times in the last month (see here and here) and U-T San Diego’s also mentioned the current status of the plume in a couple recent stories.

And the Chargers have no doubt been monitoring the cleanup, too.

In an email to Voice of San Diego, Fabiani said Chargers lawyers believed the land was developable more than a decade ago – before the cleanup was complete. It’s unlikely that the Chargers have stopped monitoring those efforts, which have led Kinder Morgan to install dozens of wells on the stadium property and to produce voluminous reports on the status of the cleanup.

But arguing otherwise benefits the Chargers. Fabiani’s repeatedly said the Chargers prefer a downtown stadium proposal and emphasized the challenges associated with the Qualcomm site. References to the massive spill that plagued the Mission Valley land about a decade ago – and got lots of news coverage – are convenient when you’re trying to throw cold water on the task force’s current proposal.

But there isn’t a huge plume polluting the Mission Valley site anymore. For Fabiani to claim otherwise is huckster propaganda.

♦ ♦ ♦

Now let’s take up a claim Fabiani made in a recent interview with U-T San Diego.

Statement: “The Department of Toxic Substances Control would have to conduct a study of which mitigation measures are necessary, and depending on the DTSC’s findings, the costs could be significant,” Fabiani said in a March 14 U-T San Diego story.

Determination: Unfounded

What Fabiani’s suggesting here is highly unlikely.

For one, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control doesn’t usually handle petroleum spills because the state doesn’t consider gas a hazardous waste.

Then there’s the fact the Water Quality Control Board is already on the case.

The two state agencies have a memorandum of understanding that says once one of them has been designated as the lead agency overseeing a cleanup, the other shouldn’t get involved unless there’s a special request.

“The bottom line is the Water Board is (the) lead on this case and has issued a cleanup order,” said McClain, who’s been overseeing the Qualcomm site cleanup. “No other agency will be involved unless the Water Board requests assistance from another agency.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control confirmed the agency has no record that it’s done any work on the site, or that its assistance has been requested.

When I told Fabiani I was looking into whether it’d be necessary for the Department of Toxic Substances Control to vet the Qualcomm site, he admitted he didn’t have “special information” on which agency would get involved.

And he added an additional clarification.

“I never said that (the plume) was an obstacle to development. In fact, our advisers back in 2001-2007 thought that the land was developable,” Fabiani wrote in an email. “What I did say, and what is indisputably true, is that if you change the use of the site, you have to run all of the regulatory traps again, including potentially DTSC, and that you may be required to institute further mitigation measures.”

So basically, he’s saying that if the city decided to build housing or retail stores – really anything more than a stadium and a parking lot, which are already there – it would force additional review.

Indeed, health standards are different for housing than stadiums and parking lots.

But McClain of the Water Board said Kinder Morgan assessed the area before the cleanup began and found no risk when the petroleum spill most permeated the area.

McClain acknowledged the Water Board could ask the gas company to do further analysis if developers proposed housing on the Qualcomm site but that doesn’t mean the Department of Toxic Substances Control would need to get involved.

“The cleanup most likely already mitigated any risk that may have existed,” McClain said.

That makes Fabiani’s statement about the need for Department of Toxic Substances Control to step in unfounded. There’s not any evidence to suggest that agency would need to review the Qualcomm site, though it could happen if the Water Board requested it, and Fabiani himself couldn’t point to anything to back up his claim.  And there’s also not any evidence to suggest that there would be a major new cost.

♦ ♦ ♦

Statement: “The litigation (over the plume) continues, and the uncertainty over its resolution could be an impediment to developing the site. No developer is going to want to get tied up in a lengthy environmental cleanup process unless there is some solution in sight,” Fabiani wrote in a Feb. 26 web chat with fans.

Determination: Misleading

The city’s long fought Kinder Morgan, claiming it took too long to start cleaning up the Qualcomm site, that its work hasn’t been sufficient and that the city’s lost money as a result. Outside lawyers paid by the city have argued the company owes San Diego $246 million in damages. The case is now on appeal.

That lawsuit isn’t about Kinder Morgan’s soil cleanup or an inability to add new buildings on the Qualcomm site. It has little to nothing to do with development on Qualcomm.

The city’s focused on its ability to use the groundwater aquifer near Qualcomm Stadium as a source of drinking water. City lawyers say Kinder Morgan’s cleanup efforts haven’t sufficiently addressed that goal.

Multiple experts – including one who’s advised the city on Kinder Morgan’s cleanup process – say that the ongoing argument shouldn’t tie up unrelated construction work on the site.

Fabiani’s statement leaves another impression: that the city’s lawsuit could complicate matters or force a developer to spend significant cash on a cleanup.

A misleading statement takes an element of truth and badly distorts or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression.

That ruling fits here because Fabiani’s statement skims over the fact that the city’s lawsuit is focused on its ability to tap into the aquifer, not on whether the Mission Valley stadium site is developable.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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