CORONADO, Calif. (KGTV) — An area of land, I-R site nine, on Naval Air Station North Island is so polluted it's been on the Department of Defense's list of top-five contaminated sites in the country, for several decades.
The toxic waste site is well known to the Navy, U.S EPA, and state water agencies.
Now, talks have begun to remediate the chemicals and heavy metals buried on the site before their effect on the bay is catastrophic.
I-R site nine is about 95 acres on the north shore of Coronado - on the base of Naval Air Station North Island.
From the 1940s to the 1970s the Navy used it as a toxic dump site for hazardous waste from the maintenance, repair, and building of aircraft.
About 800,000 gallons of solvents, lubricants, fuels, fire retardants, and other building materials were dumped here every year, either buried in drums or pits or simply poured onto the soil.
The mixture of chemicals would spontaneously combust, causing the area to become commonly known as the Fiery Marsh.
“And the compounds that are present there, like the volatile organic carbons and the semi-volatile organic carbons, these have the effect of potentially causing cancer, but they also cause endocrine disruption, hormone disruption in the growth of the target organisms. It could be fish in the bay or birds as well as people who eat those fish."
Executive Officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, David Gibson, recently sent a proposal of formal dispute to North Island Commanding Officer Captain Dwight Clemons, triggering talks to resolve the environmental and water quality concerns at the Fiery Marsh.
These are concerns caused by the heavy metals, and chemicals still in the soil and groundwater, including what are called PFAS chemicals, a family of synthetic chemicals that are extremely persistent in the environment and our bodies.
“We know that the total maximum number of constituents of concern are diverse, that they interact, they have a synergistic effect, and they likely have a cumulative effect both onsite and in the bay. These are all reasons that the water board and other state agencies feel the site should be actively remediated rather than passively monitored in hope that these chemicals break down, which in the case, the PFAS, for example, they don't,” said David Gibson.
PFAS chemicals were used for Teflon and firefighting foams. They're called forever chemicals because they don't break down, even though the Navy stopped disposing of materials in this fashion in the mid-70s, and at the same time, built an industrial waste facility at site 9.
Several soil remediation projects have already been completed here as well, going back to the 1990s. And while there are still long-term concerns about the water in the bay, Gibson says there are no concerns about our drinking water, because the bay is not part of our municipal water supply.
“Let's work through the process together like we have, we'll create the feasibility study so we can really look at those different alternative solutions and see which one's the best from everybody's perspective, so, we do this right,” said Clemons.
Clemons sent a response to the water board stating their long history of working together to clean up other sites, such as the Navy shipyard, and he proposed a leadership council informal approach to resolving the issue, bringing senior officials from both water and Navy together to develop the long-term approach to remediation. A strategy he believes will be more efficient and avoid bureaucratic red tape.
“There's not a risk to humans, and we continue to look for that to make sure that we don't have any issues like that because like I said, we grow up here, our families grew up here we're part of this community and have been for over 100 years. We play and work in the bay and in the waters around here and so we have a vested interest in doing this right."
Commander Clemons took us to the Fiery Marsh and showed us how the Navy is regularly monitoring and assessing the chemicals below the surface. These deep wells test the groundwater and offshore water samples are making sure the bay is not being impacted, and they send those results back to the waterboard. An open and transparent relationship he tells me he intends to maintain.
“But the long term is to make sure it's the correct solution, and that we don't create more damage and we get something that will be viable going forward,” added Clemons.
Gibson echoed the good working relationship with the Navy and says his agency has agreed to the informal talks to actively remediate site 9. As part of the conversation, he wants to revisit a feasibility study done in 2003.
“It's been 20 years now since that feasibility study was completed. It identified several options. It's really time to choose one, and figure out how to budget it and convince Congress to fund it in a way that protects San Diego bay,” said Gibson
Gibson says because of tough decisions between the Water Board and the Navy in the past, such as the shipyards, San Diego bay is cleaner now than it's been in the last 50 years, but it's time to start the process of definitively cleaning up the Fiery Marsh, which will be expensive and time-consuming.
“So, we have time to get this right, and something as complex as this, we do need to get it right the first time," Gibson added.
Gibson calls this clean-up a top priority for the water board, to restore and maintain the key uses of the bay, including a healthy eco-system, safe fish, and shellfish to eat, and recreation.