The Village of Escaya sits at the base of the Otay Landfill, which may be responsible for some potentially dangerous gases found in the soil. / Photo by Ry Rivard

For years, the city of Chula Vista and a string of developers have been working to put subdivisions in the eastern part of the city. Now, as homebuyers hope to move into the newest development by Christmas, they’ve run into an unexpected hitch: Their homes may not have running water.

The Otay Water District is refusing to issue water meters to the 950-home Village of Escaya after developers discovered methane and other potentially dangerous gases in the soil.

The methane issue at Escaya was first reported by inewsource.

The developer and its consultants are investigating a variety of possible sources for the gases, including the nearby Otay Landfill. One of the landfill’s garbage piles, covered and now looking very much like a natural hill, abuts and looms over the new subdivision.

Methane can be explosive in certain concentrations and cause suffocation in others, but the project’s developer, Carlsbad-based HomeFed, says it is taking action to mitigate any risks.

HomeFed gave would-be homeowners notice about the methane issues and told them they could use that new information to change their mind about buying an Escaya home. A few buyers walked away from Escaya because of the information, the company said.

“We understand it’s a difficult issue for people who haven’t dealt with it,” said Kent Aden, HomeFed’s vice president.

The Otay Water District’s main concern isn’t explosions, though: It’s worried methane and other gases – known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs – could corrode its water lines.

“The issue is the lifespan of the system and the reaction of any of our materials to the methane gas,” said the water district’s general manager, Mark Watton.

The water lines, which are made of plastic, are already in the ground. But Watton has exercised one of the most powerful options California water districts have when it comes to land use decisions: refusing to issue water meters.

Without water, of course, the homes are uninhabitable.

HomeFed was surprised by the water district’s concern, which popped up a few weeks ago. HomeFed acknowledges it didn’t tell the water district quickly about the methane problem, but says that is because it didn’t think there was a problem for the water district.

“There’s a consensus of every consultant we’ve talked to that methane is not an issue for their water system,” said Aden.

HomeFed is working with Otay and hopes to get things resolved this week. Otay now somewhat unexpectedly holds the fate of HomeFed’s massive investment in its hands. Many homes are still under construction, but Escaya is only part of a series of developments HomeFed plans for area that could eventually include 13,000 homes.

The company said because it’ll be working in Chula Vista for years to come and has so much on the line, it is taking every step possible to make sure its homes are safe.

HomeFed’s outside consultants told the water district last week that methane and the other chemicals are unlikely to affect water lines.

“The water distribution systems can be installed and operated indefinitely, as proposed, with confidence that those systems will not be impacted by the very low levels of [volatile organic compound] vapors that have been detected at the site,” the consultant, GeoKinetics, said in a report.

Otay Water District hired its own consultant last month to review HomeFed’s reports.

HomeFed is hoping to resolve the issue quickly so several dozen buyers can move in by Christmas.

The methane issue was discovered earlier this year after builders came across water with an oily sheen. That wasn’t methane, it was petroleum, but it set off a round of testing that eventually turned up methane and the other gases.

Escaya – a made-up word meant to evoke “escape” and “sky” – is built at the foot of the Otay Landfill and adjacent to several salvage yards. It’s possible the oily sheen came from petroleum leaking from the salvage yards and that the methane came from the landfill.

GeoKinetics said the landfill was the likely source of the methane and other compounds, though the report is not conclusive.

The landfill’s owner, Republic Services, said it has multiple systems in place to collect and control landfill gas and monitor groundwater around the landfill. It noted that other sources – like the salvage yards –could be a source. Republic, however, did not rule itself out as a source of some of the gases.

It’s also possible that the methane is naturally occurring.

In 2001, after methane was found at several new developments across San Diego, the County Board of Supervisors mandated testing for the gas at any construction site where a lot of earth was moved. This kind of earth-moving is known as “grading.”

The presence of methane in soil is not itself a risk, but because methane is lighter than air, it can move upward and then concentrate to levels that become dangerous. Methane can explode at concentrations of 50,000 parts per million.

Initial tests at the Escaya site found concentrations at or above that, but later tests that are considered more reliable found the highest level of gas to be below the explosive level, at 38,000 parts per million. That highest concentration was on a lot that is eventually supposed to house a school. At other lots, the gas was found at lower levels and in some cases not detected at all.

HomeFed said it’s taking efforts to lower risk even further by putting vents in homes so that gases can’t build up in them.

In 2005, the county reversed itself on mandatory methane testing after it concluded that there was “no significant risk of methane gas intrusion into an enclosed structure or possible ignition of that gas from projects located on mass graded sites.”

So, the Board of Supervisors repealed the ordinance requiring testing.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the Otay Water District is considering hiring a consultant to review HomeFed’s reports. It hired one last month.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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