Contaminants Pose New Problems for Playa Vista Complex

Times Staff Writer

A new controversy has erupted over Playa Vista, the vast coastal property that is the focal point of one of the fiercest slow-growth battles in Los Angeles. Studies show that the $1-billion development site adjacent to Marina del Rey is contaminated with significant amounts of hazardous waste.

The 957-acre property, said to be one of the largest undeveloped urban parcels in the United States, contains high levels of soil and ground-water contamination from industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and one known carcinogen, according to state Water Quality Control Board records obtained by The Times.

The waste is confined to the Playa Vista property, where the owner, Howard Hughes Properties, wants to build a vast home and office complex around a pleasure boat marina. It poses no immediate public health threat, water quality experts say.

Harmful Effects Feared

But a dispute rages over whether there would be harmful effects if the property is developed and thousands of people move in. And there are allegations that Hughes Properties, a subsidiary of the Summa Corp., failed to disclose information about the toxic finding to at least one public official who has been involved in negotiations over the scale of the development.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the area, said she and her staff were told nothing about the hazardous waste when Hughes executives briefed them on the project. Galanter also accused the developer of glossing over the discovery in an environmental impact report filed with the city.

"It may not legally be a case of bad faith, and they may not have been legally required to mention it," Galanter said. "But in the context of what an EIR (environmental impact report) is supposed to be for, they have really been holding out on the community."

A Hughes spokeswoman, Christine Henry, denied Galanter's accusations. She said Hughes executives did touch on the toxic finding during recent meetings with the councilwoman and her staff. Henry also said the contamination was briefly noted in the 1985 environmental impact report. "We knew there was a problem," she said. "But beyond that, we did not know the extent of it."

'Major Contamination Site'

Hank H. Yacoub, supervising engineer of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board's toxics division, said Playa Vista is regarded as a "major contamination site" because of the size of the property and the types of chemicals found there.

But he added that a massive cleanup is under way and that there is no threat to inhabitants of the property if the job is done properly, though it could take as long as 20 years. Galanter, who will wield considerable influence over the process, said she is not so sure.

Galanter said the contamination finding should have a bearing on all future discussions on the development. "This opens a series of questions about the appropriateness of the proposed land uses," she said. "As a public policy issue, they ought to clean it up. And we ought to know it's cleaned up before they put a building on it. Years from now we could get sued because someone gets a terrible cancer of something."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Westside slow-growth advocates who have waged a determined battle against the development on grounds that it will cause disastrous traffic and pollution problems. The same group recently helped oust veteran Councilwoman Pat Russell, who backed Playa Vista, in favor of Galanter, who had called for less development.

Ruth Lansford, president of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, a wildlife preserve that borders the Playa Vista development, said she is worried that the hazardous waste could reach the wetlands. "From what I have seen of other sites, this kind of cleanup is not that easy," Lansford said.

Sal Grammatico, president of the Coalition of Concerned Communities, an umbrella group that represents several neighborhood organizations, asked why Hughes executives failed to inform residents of the contamination three years ago. "The fact that they knew the problem existed and did not make the public aware indicates that they may have been negligent," he said.

Approval Sought

Broad disclosure of the toxic finding and the disagreement with Galanter have come when Hughes is deep in the process of trying to win approval for its controversial 20-million-square-foot corporate community, which would encompass homes, apartments, offices, a hotel and 700 to 900 boat slips.

The City of Los Angeles annexed most of the property in 1985, and the state Coastal Commission has approved Playa Vista's land-use plan. But Hughes still has several hurdles to overcome, including subdivision of the property, an updated review of the environmental impact report and approval of a building permit.

Hughes is running ahead of schedule on the multimillion-dollar cleanup effort so far. The company will not reveal how much it expects to spend on the job.

Officials said that Playa Vista's contamination problems apparently date back to the 1940s, when the late billionaire Howard Hughes purchased the property for aircraft and helicopter manufacturing plants. One of the planes built there was the Spruce Goose.

Types of Toxics

Officials say the plants, on the eastern edge of the property, had such likely contaminators as an etching laboratory, a salvage yard, fuel oil tanks, solvent and acid sumps, liquid waste clarifier pits, waste neutralization pits and an unlined fire-training burn pit.

Robert E. Morrison, vice president of Hughes Properties, said some of the chemicals made their way into the soil through leaks and others through the disposal procedures commonly permitted at the time.

Concerns about contamination at the site first surfaced in 1983, Morrison said, when the state required companies to register underground storage tanks and clean up those that had leaked dangerous substances.

Morrison said the company's initial investigation disclosed that industrial chemicals, solvents and gasoline had leaked into the soil on the eastern end of the property, where the McDonnell Douglas Helicopter facility is located.

The major contaminant discovered at the site was trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent used as a degreaser in the 1950s. Others included toluene ethylbenzene, vinyl chloride, dichloroethane (DCA), trans-1,2-dichloroethylene, xylene isomers, hydrocarbons (C5 to C8) and benzene, which is a known carcinogen in water, according to state officials.

Agencies Alerted

Morrison said Hughes alerted the Environmental Protection Agency, the health services department and the water quality control board to their findings in 1984. The company also hired an engineering firm to study the condition of the soil.

"Finding the chemicals was not a surprise," Morrison said. "We have all learned an awful lot (about toxic contamination) in the last 10 years."

McLaren Environmental Engineering Co. checked the site and interviewed people who had worked at the aircraft plants. Investigators found hazardous waste in both the soil and the groundwater. The contaminated ground water is under 88 acres of the site but could spread to other parts of the property, they said. Hughes executives have also identified 524 cubic yards of contaminated soil.

"Volatile organic chemicals and petroleum hydrocarbons occurred in low concentrations in soils at most of the investigated potential source areas," the report stated. "Investigations (also) indicated the presence of industrial chemicals in ground water at depths of 6 to 25 feet beneath the site. . . . The chemicals have not migrated beyond the site boundary and do not pose a threat to the nearest domestic water supply well, which is about five miles from the site."

Will Remove Sumps

Henry said soil removal at nine sites in the Playa Vista property, a relatively quick job, has already started. Hughes will also remove four sumps--pits for draining or storing liquids--from a salvage yard.

Treating the groundwater will be more complex and time-consuming.

McLaren Vice President Douglas W. Jones said the company will pump the water out of six wells and into an "air stripping" system that uses carbon filters to slowly extract the chemicals from the water. He said 25 to 50 pounds of solvents will be extracted each day and stored in a 1,000-gallon stainless-steel tank, the contents of which will be disposed of at a hazardous waste dump every 90 days or so.

Yacoub of the water quality control board confirmed that air stripping is an acceptable way to treat the contamination. "If it's done properly, it has to work," he said. "It is theoretically sound."

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