Study Questions Possible Rohr Discharge : Environment: Chemicals may have been dumped into bay decades ago. State agency wants more tests.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In response to findings by state water officials that it may have discharged "suspicious materials" into San Diego Bay, Rohr Industries Inc. of Chula Vista gave no explanation for the discharge, but called itself an environmentally proactive company.

Chemicals including chromium, nickel and polychlorinated biphenyls--a chemical that is illegal in the United States--were found near four sewage drains in March, 1989, according to Chris Sandall, environmental specialist with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board.

"We're not saying they've been in violation of anything yet; we are asking them to investigate a potential problem," Sandall said. "Then again, there may not be a problem."

Rohr is licensed by the state to discharge brine, the liquid result of using reverse osmosis on drinking water, but it does not hold a permit to release the types of chemicals found by the water quality board. Rohr makes nacelles and pylons for the aerospace industry.

Sandall said the issue became public when the water quality board requested that Rohr take additional water samples to determine whether the chemicals found pose an environmental hazard.

"It's not an allegation, it's more of a concern," Sandall said. "Finding (polychlorinated biphenyls), even though they were found in extremely low levels, would indicate some kind of past industrial discharge. But I don't have enough evidence to say Rohr purposely discharged PCBs. We don't have enough information to say that there's a significant problem."

Sandall said it is hard to say whether Rohr has done anything illegal, because the chemicals could have been released into the bay anywhere from 20 to 40 years ago, when water regulations were much less stringent or virtually nonexistent.

Rohr officials declined to comment, but said in a statement that the facility operates in full compliance with federal law.

"The Regional Water Control Board has given us the 1989 test data, but we still don't know where or how the samples were taken or when the materials might have been deposited," according to the statement, issued to the news media Wednesday. "We're trying to determine if any significant level exists and, if so, what might be the source."

Sandall said the tests were taken in outfalls at the northern and southern ends of the industrial plant. Other samples were taken at outfalls at Crosby Street in San Diego and J Street in Chula Vista, he said.

Rohr Industries said in the statement: "We don't have any processing or activities in our plant near the marsh area that could generate such materials. Our property is at the end of a broader drainage system that includes others to the east, and it is possible the material may have been deposited decades ago."

Sandall said it is difficult to determine whether the materials found will harm marine life, because the sampling results are inconclusive. If the materials are found to be in high quantities, the public would have to be warned not to eat any fish from the southern area of San Diego Bay, he said.

"We have recommended that Rohr (do) its own tests," Sandall said. "We will get Rohr to do the additional studies and let them incur the costs, not the taxpayers. That's typically the way it's done."

Rohr has been under scrutiny in the past on environmental issues. In 1987, contaminated soil excavated from Rohr was dumped at a home in Bonita. Company officials said it was dumped there mistakenly.

The soil was contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons from an underground diesel fuel tank. Rohr has been authorized to remove and replace the soil.

"At the time, we notified the proper authorities," according to Wednesday's statement. "Now we have been authorized to remove and replace the soil, and we will do so this month. Our permit to remove the tank specified we should not discharge to a storm drain, and we complied. The diesel fuel and contaminated ground water were pumped into four tanker trucks and disposed of properly."

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