The discovery of lead contamination on a 44-acre site near Chollas Park has stalled a land swap between the Navy and the City of San Diego and has forced the Navy to postpone plans to build family housing there this year.
A Navy study of the city-owned land also has turned up evidence of toxic contamination in a nearby area that is to be developed into a city park, officials said.
The Navy has hired a private consulting firm to determine whether the housing site can be cleaned up sufficiently for use as a residential area where children might play, said Cmdr. Douglas E. Mann, the officer in charge of construction for the Navy's southwest area.
Ingestion of lead by young children has been linked to mental retardation.
The city also has hired an outside consultant to study the contamination in the designated park area, according to George Loveland, parks and recreation director. He described the affected area as little-used and "uninviting."
Officials said they do not know the extent of the contamination in either area and likewise are not sure how much a cleanup might cost.
The location on the eastern edge of the city was once used as a dump site for incinerator ash, which is the suspected cause of the toxic residue, officials said.
"If there's a simple solution, we're going to build there," Mann said. "I still think it's a good site for housing and the city has agreed in principle that they will either reimburse us or clean it up.
"We're hoping that it will only be a year, but if it's a serious environmental problem, it could take a few years to clean up," Mann said.
The swap, first announced in August, 1986, following three years of negotiations, was to give the city a valuable park and a trash-conversion site near Miramar Naval Air Station, while the Navy was to get land for desperately needed housing. The site would provide housing for 300 families.
However, Navy and city officials say that 18 months after the announcement, the deal still has not been completed because the Navy has refused to accept the deed to the Chollas site.
"We haven't exchanged anything yet," said James Spotts, the city's property director. "We have forwarded the deed to the Navy . . . We gave them the document that would make them the owners."
Officials said it was premature to discuss what would happen if it ultimately falls through because of the contamination problem.
Under the agreement, the Navy is to get the Chollas site between College Grove Drive and Redwood Street at the southwest end of Chollas Park. The Navy would also be allowed to extend the Miramar base boundaries 120 acres to the west and 160 acres to the southeast.
The city is to get a 44-acre sports complex near Miramar, consisting of 13 ball fields for children's soccer, softball and baseball teams; 43 acres south of the proposed California 52 extension for a trash-to-energy project, and a no-cost lease for 75 acres near Miramar to develop police and fire academies and a pistol range.
Also as part of the deal, the city is to develop a 46-acre parcel east of the Navy's Chollas housing site into a park.
Navy officials first learned of the lead contamination about nine months ago, Mann said, when Navy engineers completed an environmental report on sites scheduled for construction in 1988.
Mann said the problem apparently exists on only about one-half acre of the 44 acres.
At the same time, Navy engineers discovered ash at the nearby site that is supposed to be turned into a park, according to Loveland, the parks director.
A meeting was scheduled between city and Navy officials last Oct. 14 to discuss the situation, Mann said. "We said to the city: 'We found some hazardous waste there. Will you clean it up?'
"The city said they would have to quantify the degree of hazard," Mann said, adding that a city official suggested that the Navy conduct a study to determine whether cleanup was possible and how much it might cost.
The Navy has since hired a local engineering firm and is awaiting a complete analysis of the site.
Spotts agreed that the city may end up paying to clean up the housing site, but said it was widely known for years that the property was used as a burn dump.