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Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire on board USS Bonhomme Richard at Naval Base San Diego. / Photo by U.S. Navy Lt. John J. Mike

What pollutants billowed into the air as a Navy ship burned in San Diego harbor earlier this month are finally now public – and so are a number of violations against the military for emitting them.

The USS Bonhomme Richard, an almost 900-foot marine assault vessel, caught fire on July 12 and blanketed the region in smoke. Within days, the haze caught a westerly wind, casting fine particles through the air as far as El Cajon.

Residents of San Diego neighborhoods (especially those close to the shipyards) reported nausea and headaches.

A team of air pollution specialists worked overtime last week, following social media reports to locate where smoke from the burning ship reached San Diegans. They carried with them silver canisters, a bit smaller than a basketball, which capture air in a vacuum and store it until laboratory technicians can analyze its contents.

The results from a week’s worth of testing showed above-average levels of chemical compounds that come from burning petroleum-based products like oil, fuel or plastics.

“It tells us there was some type of petroleum-based thing that was burning (on the ship,)” said Bill Brick, chief of San Diego County Air Pollution Control District.

Though the numbers in the data seem high, lab technicians count how many particles of a certain type of pollution are bouncing around an air sample that contains one trillion total air particles. Both county and state health officials say the chemicals weren’t around long enough or in massive enough quantities to greatly harm human health. Still, a few stand out.

One is benzene. A sample taken at a San Diego State University parking lot July 12 at 11 p.m. showed benzene levels were over 1,000 percent above a historical average reported by a sensor on downtown Sherman Heights Elementary School. Exposure to benzene at very high levels can cause difficulty thinking, change in heart function and it’s considered a cancer-causing chemical.

To put it into context though, the reading at SDSU was 3,251 parts benzene per trillion air particles. Acute exposure, under California state standards, is 8,000 parts benzene per trillion air particles.

“The good news is that very short exposure to carcinogens are not likely to lead to an increase in risk (of cancer),” said Penelope Quintana, a public and environmental health expert at San Diego State University.

Another detected compound of concern is acrolein. It’s produced when trees, tobacco, gas and oil burn. On average, Sherman Heights’ sensors show an average level of 182 parts acrolein per trillion in the air. On Sunday evening, that level at SDSU was 366. An acute level is 1,100 parts per trillion.

Acrolein can affect multiple organs including the cardiovascular system, eyes, nose and lungs, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

(Side note: A dangerous level of acrolein over a longer period of time, like 70 years, is 150 parts per trillion, according to the state. So that means the sensor at Sherman Heights is detecting potentially dangerous levels of that compound since it started recording in October 2019.)

The state Environmental Health Hazard Assessment office reviewed the county’s data and concluded the public’s exposure to the detected pollutants were not at any level that would cause adverse health effects, Sam Delson, a spokesperson for the agency wrote in an email.

But until the Navy discloses which parts of the ship were burning and when, the county can’t compare its air quality data to confirm the source of the pollutants.

A day after the fire started, the county air pollution control agency issued three violations against the Navy, citing the fire’s smoke and odors as a public nuisance under state health and safety and county codes.

Mahiany Luther, the agency’s chief of compliance, said they received about 30 complaints from the public, which triggered an inspection of the source. Investigators visited the scene of the fire on the naval base, took visual notes and readings of the smoke before filing violations against the Navy.

All the violations are misdemeanors and each day the violations continued constitutes a new and separate offense. The violations started the day the fire did, July 12, but there’s no end date indicated on the initial notice, so it’s unclear just how many misdemeanors the Navy faces.

Maximum penalties under state law range between $1,000 and $1 million per day of the violation, depending on its severity, according to the violation document. At least some of that money could be apportioned out to the communities it affected through environmental projects, though the county has no formal process for this yet, Donna Durckel, an agency spokeswoman confirmed.

Luther said the county will do follow-up inspections of the scene (the agency hasn’t actually been on or inside the physical ship yet) to verify whether it was complying with “all applicable rules and regulations.” Luther said their investigation “may or may not require” physical inspection of the ship.

Since it issued the notice, the Navy has 14 days to respond. It hasn’t yet. Brian O’Rourke, a Navy spokesman, told Voice of San Diego Friday that the branch requested a 60-day extension to respond. Durckel said the agency often grants extensions in complex cases.

“This is a more complex violations,” said Luther.

The agency also cited the Navy for visible emissions (smoke), graded on a scale of opacity or how well you can see through the plume. The county took 40 such readings over an hour on July 13, the second day of the fire, and opacity was 40 to 90 percent, so, pretty dark heavy smoke. (It’s graded on the same scale used to measure emission from power plants and mines.)

Luther said the chemical compound readings taken by Brick’s team will be important for the case.

“Our public nuisance rule is designed around the impact on the community. So even if a fire didn’t produce toxic air contaminants … it’s still a public nuisance,” Luther said. “But certainly the nature of that smoke will be very relevant for this case.”

The agency issues about a thousand violations a year, Luther said. It offers those violators a way out via a settlement program. Luther said almost all of its violations are settled before reaching the courts.

The final violation report won’t be public until it’s settled, Luther said.

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