An underground plume of toxic chemicals in Chula Vista threatens to contaminate the San Diego Bay and it’s largely the Navy’s fault, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week by the Port of San Diego.
The suit cites the Navy as the lead defendant, along with the Air Force and a series of now-defunct federal agencies. Attorneys for the port allege that these parties either spilled a brew of toxins or allowed a defense contractor — Rohr Aircraft, now owned by UTC Aerospace Systems — to contaminate 48 acres of waterfront property along Lagoon Drive.
“As the legal, regulatory and environmental steward of the public trust tidelands of San Diego Bay, we would be remiss if we ignored this issue,” the port said in a statement.
“This litigation is one piece of many moving parts in our plan to remediate legacy contamination on the bay front. We are pursuing parties responsible for historic contamination of the site, including the U.S. government. Some remediation has already been completed, and our efforts are ongoing.”
Over the years, the port has worked with cities, shipyards, other companies and regulators to dredge contaminated sediment from the bay. Similar projects have been undertaken in harbors and bays up and down California, spurred by tougher water-quality rules, environmental groups’ lawsuits and public-health concerns related to fishing in polluted locations. The clean-ups have cost tens of millions of dollars.
San Diego port officials said the Chula Vista property, hemmed in by the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the north and a sprawl of light industry and a marina to the south, contains 16 toxins that often double as industrial solvents, poisons, lubricants, refrigerants, degreasers, anti-corrosion sealers and soldering agents.
Together, the substances could harm the liver, thyroid and kidney, and trigger neurological damage, skin problems, heart disease, cancer and, in rare cases, even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“It’s important to note that there is no major development or residential use currently on this bay front land, and therefore we are not aware of immediate risks to human health from legacy contamination,” according to the port’s statement. The agency indicated that any potential threats to human health will be addressed “through the remediation process” with the defendants.
Officials have not estimated the expense of cleaning up the plume, but the lawsuit seeks $75 million in damages.
Monday’s filing marked the 30th time since 1987 that the port has been a party to a federal lawsuit claiming environmental damage. The sides have settled and discontinued all but one case — a complaint brought in August against defense contractor Lockheed Martin claiming pollution of the Marine Terminal Railway Facility along San Diego's Harbor Island Drive.
Citing policy concerning ongoing litigation, the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego declined comment on the port’s latest lawsuit.
Industrial production began on the Chula Vista site shortly before America’s entry into World War II.
Originally owned by Rohr, a portion of the property was purchased by the federal government in 1942 and leased back to the company. At its peak in 1945, Rohr employed more than 13,000 workers at the site, but most of the buildings were shuttered at the end of the war.
During the Korean War, Rohr again leased that property from the government, hiring a force of more than 10,000 workers there before the conflict ended.
In 1962, a change in California law transferred a large portion of the land to the port district, which wants to redevelop the contaminated site as part of its larger Chula Vista Bayfront revitalization project. It’s the latest in a long-running series of efforts to create a mix of tourism, retail and other business and leisure activity in a heavily industrial area that’s often termed a “brownfield” by urban planners.
According to the project’s environmental impact report, port officials knew as early as 1999 about potential contamination there.
In 2010, the then-Chula Vista Redevelopment Authority ordered both Rohr and the port district to clean up the pollution. After they didn’t comply, in 2012 the redevelopment authority sued Rohr in state court, according to legal filings.
The following year, Rohr launched a lawsuit against the port to pull the agency into the litigation.
The port’s newly filed litigation in U.S. District Court draws the federal government into the fray.