Terry L. Sheldon, the developer who wants to build a 416-unit condominium complex on the Loma Portal wetlands known as Famosa Slough, has stated that the water in the slough is contaminated and "can lead to such diseases as hepatitis and botulism."
But county health officials and a state water quality control inspector said that the press release containing the statement is misleading because it gives the impression that the slough is a health hazard.
News of the release has infuriated environmentalists who have fought for more than 10 years to keep the 20-acre slough free of development and who want to restore it to its natural state after years of illegal dumping.
Those opposed to the proposed development also charge that Sheldon would like everybody to believe that the water in the slough is contaminated so he can block off the culvert that feeds the marshland, thus eventually drying it up.
"It's a setup," said Leslie Bruce, an aide to Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego). "He (Sheldon) wants to fill in the culvert that feeds the slough and fence off the property. And the justification will be that the water is contaminated."
"It's all part of a plan that I'm not fully aware of," she said.
Attempts to reach Sheldon Friday afternoon were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for the Stoorza Co., a public relations firm which has been retained by the T.L. Sheldon Corp., said Sheldon simply wanted to inform the public that the slough water posed a threat to humans and animals.
The release reads, "Contamination in the channel has the potential to negatively affect the water quality of the Famosa Slough. Therefore, the entire Slough area has been posted with signs reading: 'DANGER Contaminated Water.' Health officials warned that contact with the contaminated water can lead to such diseases as hepatitis and botulism."
Gary Stephany, chief county environmental health officer, said that Sheldon contacted the city last week and complained that sewage from a pipe on West Point Loma Boulevard was leaking into the slough. As a routine precaution, city inspectors erected signs warning of potential contamination while tests were conducted Monday. The tests showed no evidence of sewage bacteria.
In addition, inspectors ran dye through the sewer pipelines in the area to check for leaks, but the lines proved solid, he said.
There was, however, a high coliform count, an index of bacteria from animal feces, Stephany said. The high count--which is not an unusual phenomenon in a marshland with little tidal flow--was most likely caused by droppings from birds who nest in the marshland, he said.
"Anytime you have a body of water that doesn't recirculate, the potential for a high coliform count is there ," Stephany said.
But he said the bacteria present would not cause diseases as severe as hepatitis and botulism.
"If someone was to get some water on their hand and then, for instance, touch their lips you could contract some sort of gastrointestinal illness, but nothing serious."
Stephany said that his office suggested to Sheldon that he put up signs warning of the coliform count.
Greig Peters, an inspector with the state Water Quality Control Board, said the issue of contamination in the San Diego River Channel that feeds the marshland as well as the slough itself is a "trumped-up thing on the part of the owner to make a natural resource look worse than it is."
Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Costa (D-Fresno) that would allow Sheldon to build on as much as 10 acres of the slough, while paying half the costs to restore the remaining acreage, should reach the Assembly floor next week, according to Killea's office. Under the bill, Sheldon would have to work with the state Coastal Commission to hammer out the fine points of the proposal. The state Coastal Conservancy would pay the other half of restoration.
"This is a controversy that has continued, and it's not surprising that the developer is trying to make a case that the slough is not a wetland and degraded," said Adam Birnbaum, of the state Coastal Commission.