Test of Downtown Site Reveals High Level of Toxic Contamination

Times Staff Writer

Independent tests on a downtown San Diego metal-plating company charged with illegally dumping and storing hazardous wastes show high levels of contamination concentrated on the premises but little pollution spreading to other properties, it was announced Friday.

However, the testing did turn up gasoline contamination in ground water near the plating company, located across the street from the southern edge of Horton Plaza.

Officials don’t know where the gasoline is coming from or how long it has been there, but they say that because it’s 20 feet underground, it’s not an immediate health hazard or a threat to explode.


The extent of hazardous waste contamination at Super Plating Works, 106 W. Martin Luther King Way, is not extraordinary for a company that has regularly used toxic materials for many years, said Craig Stewart, a senior hydrologist for Hydrotech Consultants Inc., the Irvine-based firm that conducted the testing.

“We feel it’s significant . . . but as industrial sites go, this isn’t that bad. It’s not the world’s biggest disaster,” Stewart said at a meeting of the Centre City Development Corp., the government agency in charge of downtown redevelopment that hired Hydrotech in June after reports of contamination surfaced.

“We’re not looking at a Super Fund site,” he told reporters later.

The location of the greatest pollution is the area of the facility where the actual plating and storage of chemical occurred. The firm electroplated such things as car bumpers.

At this site, next to 1st Avenue, five-foot-deep test borings showed unsafe levels of nickel, copper, cyanide and hexavalent chromium. Using nickel as an example, Stewart said levels of the metal were detected at 4,220 parts per million. Levels above 2,000 ppm are considered hazardous, Stewart explained.

The concentration of toxic chemicals decreased the farther away from the plating facility the test borings went.


For example, while hazardous concentrations extend to the company next door, San Diego Metal Spray Inc., 636 1st Ave., at an asphalt parking lot 60 feet away, concentrations of nickel were 2 ppm to 5 ppm, well within the range of what would naturally be present in the area’s soil, Stewart said.

While the testing determined there is no doubt Super Plating was the source of the nickel, cyanide, copper and hexavalent chromium contamination on the block, the source of several other chemicals found in nearby soil--which exceed natural background levels of but are not considered hazardous--is unknown.

Those chemicals, identified as acetone, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, benzene, toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene and petroleum hydrocarbons, are probably the result of the historic heavy industrial and urban uses that have characterized that part of downtown San Diego for decades.

In conjunction with soil contamination, the consultants also found ground water contamination. Specifically, test wells showed chemicals emanating from Super Plating had traveled in a plume downstream and southwest from the facility, reaching the area under the sidewalk outside the Union Ice Co. located across the street at 145 W. Martin Luther King.

As with the soil pollution, the ground water contamination exceeding state and federal standards is confined to the Super Plating site, Stewart said.

What the consultants also discovered, however, was gasoline floating in the ground water near 1st and Martin Luther King.

How it got there, where it’s coming, and how much there is no one knows. It did not originate at the Super Plating site and seems to be traveling from the east or south, the consultants said. Government agencies in charge of tracking chemical pollution say they are not aware of any leaking tanks in the area.

It will be up to the San Diego Regional Quality Control Board and the county’s hazardous materials division to determine what to do about the gasoline contamination, as well as approving the consultant’s report and clean-up plan for soil and ground water under the Super Plating facility.

Officials at the county hazardous materials division say that based on their current knowledge of the situation, the gasoline doesn’t pose a health risk, though they are concerned that it may be finding its way several blocks away into San Diego Bay.

The officials point out that downtown San Diego presents a problem because underground gasoline tanks have been used in the area for many years. During the excavation of Horton Plaza, for example, gasoline tanks were found buried in the ground that no one knew were there. At least one of the tanks still contained substantial amounts of gasoline, hazardous materials officials said.

David Barker, senior engineer for the regional water quality control board, said in an interview that both his agency and the county will now try and coordinate what to do next. “If possible, we’ll try to find out who is responsible,” Barker said. “Our goal is to remove whatever is there.”

The effort at finding the source of gasoline, however, may be limited by the agency’s lack of manpower. “We’re busy enough already with problems where the source of contamination is known,” he said.

Generally, Barker said, clean-up of gasoline contamination is expensive and, depending on the soil and other conditions, can take years to do.

As for the clean-up of the soil and ground water polluted by Super Plating, the consultants say the costs will depend on decisions made by the county and water board. Stewart said one way of cleaning the site is to remove about 750 cubic yards of contaminated dirt.

David Marx, head of the county Health Department’s hazardous materials enforcement program, said in an interview that a clean-up plan will probably take several weeks to finalize.

Aside from the soil and ground water pollution, the clean-up plan will have to involve walls, concrete, ventilation shafts and dust in the Super Plating facility that also have high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Stewart said this could be done with sand blasting and steam cleaning.

Who will pay for cleaning the site and the adjoining area is still a question. Barker says his agency has the authority to require the owners of Super Plating to pay for removal of contaminated material, even if it was polluted by chemicals that originated from somewhere else.

CCDC, which wants to condemn the block and use it for housing construction, may also have to get involved, although CCDC officials say it’s too early to discuss what involvement, if any, the organization would have in decontaminating the area.

In a related development Friday, Super Plating was sued by its landlord, the Starr Trust, for damages resulting from the toxic pollution. Included in the lawsuit was the company that preceded Super Plating at the location, a company called Superior Plating Works, which also used chemicals in the electroplating process.

According to Starr Trust attorney Thomas Monson, the trust is seeking unspecified damages for anticipated future clean-up costs and loss of property value.

Monson also said that the trust has filed a court action to evict Super Plating, whose lease expired on June 30.