Downtown redevelopment officials, faced with the vexing problem of a 460,000-gallon lake of gasoline and diesel fuel 19 feet below ground in the Marina area, agreed Friday to buy property for a decontamination pump station.
The action was the latest in a series by the Centre City Development Corp., the city agency in charge of downtown redevelopment, to find a solution to the pollution problem since the gasoline pool was discovered by accident a little more than a year ago.
The gasoline and diesel fuel--some of which may have been there for 40 years--is being drawn toward the $138.5-million bayside convention center now under construction. That's because the center's dewatering system, which pumps about 1 million gallons of water a day from the site, is acting like a giant vacuum, pulling the hazardous fuel closer to the facility.
The presence of the plume also jeopardizes CCDC's plans to rebuild in much of the area. Additionally, CCDC directors are worried about the possible liability facing the agency and the legal quagmire of assessing private property owners for cleanup costs.
"It's mind-boggling, where it's going," CCDC board member Patrick Kruer said at Friday's board meeting. "This is one of the most dangerous liabilities this agency could become involved in."
CCDC staff officials told the board that the agency was faced with two choices: either get involved aggressively to clean up the problem or withdraw and do nothing. As a practical matter, they said, CCDC has to step in.
"It's critical we capture the plume as it moves to the convention center," CCDC Assistant Vice President Pamela Hamilton said. The risk in constructing and operating the $228,000 pumping station, she said, is no greater than operating a gasoline station.
Although CCDC has authorized spending $228,000 in the next year to remove the underground pool, total cleanup, including disposal of dirt saturated with gasoline and removal of the gasoline itself to a refinery, could ultimately cost more than $1 million.
The agency's board of directors approved spending $225,000 on Friday to buy 5,000 square feet on the southeastern corner of Island and 2nd avenues. A staff report said the location is the ideal for the construction of the cleanup pumping station.
It's believed that the plume--roughly encompassing three blocks, from 1st Avenue on the west to just past 3rd Avenue on the east and Market Street on the north--has now spread south to the property selected as the site for the pump facility.
It appears, according to Hamilton, that another three to four pumping stations might be needed for CCDC to meets its goal of completely removing the contaminated pool within a year. Officials hope additional property for the stations won't be necessary, which which would send cleanup costs even higher.
"We'll know a lot more once we start extracting the stuff," said Hamilton. "It's certainly not our intention . . . to buy more property."
Purchase of the property at Island and 2nd avenues is set tentatively for Thursday, and CCDC wants to begin building the pump station within weeks.
But board members, led by Kruer, said they don't want construction to begin until the firm selected to build the station, Applied Hydrogeologic Consultants of San Diego, obtains more liability insurance. The company's insurance needs will be discussed again by the agency on Dec. 18.
How much CCDC will be able to recover, if anything, for its cleanup costs is a matter of much debate. CCDC is working with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board and the county Department of Health Services not only to identify the sources of the pollution but to identify property owners who can be assessed for the cost of the removal.
An agreement approved Friday will enable the water quality control board to help CCDC recover its cleanup costs from "those parties that are found to be responsible for the contamination."
So far, about seven or eight potential sources of the contamination have been identified. Some of the gasoline and diesel fuel appear to have come from decades-old leaks in underground tanks operated by businesses that, in many cases, are no longer there. But in at least one case, involving a repair and storage facility for Greyhound Lines Inc., officials believe the leaks are ongoing, a contention Greyhound officials have adamantly denied in the past.
"It's going to take litigation, probably," said CCDC's executive vice president Gerald Trimble in explaining what it might take for the agency to recoup its costs.
The cleanup plan approved by CCDC involves building and installing five pumping wells, a stripping tower to clean contaminated water, one 10,000-gallon underground fuel containment tank, and one 22,000-gallon aboveground water-storage tank. It's estimated that it will take 50-million gallons of water to clean the plume. Monthly maintenance costs are estimated at $19,000.
The greatest risk from the pool is the threat of explosion and fire during an excavation for a building because vapors have been detected as close as six feet from the surface.