The seaside enclave of Laguna Beach has long been a catch basin for inland urban runoff and flood waters, which in years past have washed through its narrow village streets and swamped its business district and beaches.
Now, after nearly a decade of delays, the City Council is plowing ahead with a $10-million project to build a wider underground flood channel, even as evidence is emerging that plumes of chemicals have pooled in the soil and ground water where most of the construction will take place.
Environmentalists are demanding that city officials assess the risk to the public from exposure to high levels of MTBE, benzene and other cancer-causing oil and gas derivatives. But council members, who voted unanimously last month to proceed, say they can't afford to lose $8.6 million and the manpower being provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Orange County Flood District.
On Nov. 20, council members rejected a request by city engineers for additional time to inform the public, work out logistics and extra costs of cleanup. They argued that without the financial help, the channel would never be fixed, leaving lives and livelihoods at stake in the next flood season.
"If we delay this for a year, we're risking the safety of people of this town and businesses," council member Wayne Baglin said. "It's been seven years already. That's too long. . . . Let's not let this one slip through our fingers."
But opponents say too many critical issues are being overlooked.
"There are a lot of dangerous unknowns about human health and safety, as well as potential impacts on the marine environment and the ecosystem," said Marc Wright, chairman of the Laguna chapter of Surfrider Foundation. "The city doesn't have enough information to say with any credibility that any of those potential risks can be ruled out."
The beach town of 25,000 has always been anxious about going through with a $10-million repair, hoping to avoid the traffic diversions, the noise, the odors and the other pains of tearing up a part of downtown.
The existing channel, which carries flood waters from inland cities, is pinched by S-curves in Laguna Canyon, then doubles in carrying capacity to a million gallons a minute only to narrow again to 360,000 gallons a minute before it ends at Main Beach. As a result, during heavy storms, water regularly backs up at drains near Beach Street, sending rivulets of sand and silt through downtown. A few years ago, El Nino rains closed shops and restaurants, damaged the boardwalk and beach.
"We must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars cleaning mud off the sidewalks and buildings downtown," Baglin said. "Businesses closed down for several days. We're lucky we didn't lose people."
To relieve the pressure points, a new concrete box, 14 feet wide and 10 feet deep, would be built under Broadway, running about 450 yards from the bus depot, through the intersection of Coast Highway, the city's busiest thoroughfare, then out through the middle of Main Beach, according to city officials.
To mitigate for hazardous wastes flowing in the channel, pilings made of steel will be driven as deep as 30 feet around the perimeter of the construction zones. Through a series of sump pumps and screens, contaminated water would be treated on site to levels permissible for storm drain runoff.
The channel project, expected to take 18 months to two years, is scheduled to begin by February with relocation of sewer, telephone and power lines. Traffic would be reduced from three lanes to one along Broadway, and at Coast Highway, motorists would be rerouted. Work would be suspended during the summer.
But environmental activists say MTBE--methyl tertiary butyl ether, a known carcinogen that can travel swiftly in ground water and doesn't degrade easily--is a big concern. Readings taken this year by county health officials were as high as 42,000 parts per billion in ground water near Coast Highway and Broadway. The state maximum allowable in drinking water is 13 parts per billion.
A popular gasoline additive for decades, MTBE is being phased out in California by 2003 because of health threats. The chemical is believed to have been spilled from underground tanks at gasoline stations.
But county officials and corps engineers say there is evidence the worst chemical plume is stable, even shrinking. They say the cleanup is manageable and that the ground water is not used for drinking.