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Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
Playing Dirty
I love the San Francisco Giants. I love them because they field players like Marvin Bernard.

He's the 5-foot-9-inch outfielder Barry Bonds picks on because he's shorter than most players. Toward the end of last season, though, Bernard began hitting hero shots that brought the crowd to its feet and made the trip to the ballpark worthwhile.

I don't get all swoony for teams like the Yankees and the Braves, organizations populated with freaky Übermenschen who always play perfectly and never seem to sweat. I prefer a team with players who have to try harder than most because they're 5-foot-9 and fighting with all they have to stay in The Show.

I'd like to say that the heroic qualities of Marvin Bernard are matched by the behavior of Giants management and ownership, but I can't. I can't say that because blue-collar heroism and sleazy white-collar behavior don't go together.

Here's the sleazy behavior I'm talking about:
The Giants have a big old hill of dirt piled up on the site at Third and King streets where the team is building its new ballpark. Eighteen thousand cubic yards of dirt, to be exact. That's 27,000 tons.

Past environmental studies suggest this big old hill probably contains shockingly high levels of various toxins such as gasoline, diesel, motor oil, lead, copper, mercury, and arsenic. When it was piled there, the dirt could have contained heavy doses of benzene, a volatile organic compound. Who knows if benzene has vaporized off the dirt and into the air -- or the lungs of construction workers and people who work nearby? The construction folks working on the stadium have draped tarps loosely over part of the monstrous pile of dirt, but much of the mound is exposed to the air, and for a long time it was left completely uncovered. (I know; I work across the street.)

And now the Giants are asking state toxic waste regulators to let them ignore environmental law and dump the 18,000 cubic yards of dirt -- some of the most toxic earth regulated by law -- onto a nearby piece of bayside land, located just across China Basin Channel, which is itself already horribly polluted. The land where the Giants propose to sweep their toxic mess under the carpet (so to speak) was once used by a company that tore apart toxic waste storage tanks to be sold as scrap.

In other words, the Giants want to pile high levels of toxic waste on top of other toxic waste, right at the edge of San Francisco Bay -- even though it's not legal to do so.

The soil the Giants have dug up from the site of their new ballpark, and now want to get rid of, contains lead. Actually, according to state toxins regulators, the soil contains nearly 10 times the legal level of lead, in a water-soluble form -- which means that lead will very likely leak into the bay if the Giants are allowed to dump the dirt across China Basin Channel.

The ground water under the bayside land where the Giants want to place this 18,000 cubic yards of toxic mess regularly interacts with the tidal flux of bay water. That is, bay water seeps into this land with the tide, mixes with ground water, and then goes out with the tide.

For the federally protected species that call the bay near China Basin home -- the California brown pelican and the California harbor seal -- that seepage of toxic-laced ground water into the bay could mean disease or death.

Lead accumulates the further up the food chain it travels. If lead is absorbed by algae, clams, and worms residing in bay mud just off the shoreline, it will accumulate at higher levels as fish and birds eat those worms and clams, and seals, sea lions, pelicans, and people eat the fish and birds that have consumed the worms and clams. Studies have shown that whole ecosystems can "crash" because of the kind of pollution that may well be seeping into China Basin Channel and the nearby bay.

State law says that soil as nasty as the Giants have on their hands should be impounded in a toxic waste facility with the strictest possible guards against toxic releases. Such "Class 1" landfills are usually located in arid, unpopulated areas. They have intricate systems to detect if toxins are leaching beyond the dumps' synthetic liners. The stuff that goes into a Class 1 toxic waste facility is so dangerous that getting government approval to open such a landfill usually takes 10 to 15 years. Only three such facilities exist in California.

But it seems that sending their toxic mess to a Class 1 facility, as the law dictates, is just too costly for the Giants. (Using industry standard prices, I estimate the bill for hauling the 18,000 cubic yards of dirt to a Class 1 facility at somewhere between $1.2 million and $1.4 million.) The team, via the China Basin Ballpark Corp., the private entity formed by the Giants owners to finance and build the new ballpark, and the team's environmental consultant, Geomatrix Inc., is asking state toxic waste regulators for permission to simply dump this 18,000 cubic yards of pollution across the street and pave over it with a parking lot.

The full panoply of toxins in the soil remains something of a mystery. Frank Simpson, the Bay Area spokesperson for the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, told me the soil contains water-soluble lead at anywhere between double and nearly nine times the legal level. "It's real high, a real problem for them," he said.

I tried to find out if the Giants had tested the soil for other toxic substances. But the team's environmental consultant, Amanda Spencer, of Geomatrix Inc., was apparently too busy to call back to explain her tests on soil at the ballpark. So I don't know how much benzene is in the soil, or how much of it might have vaporized into construction workers' nostrils (or, for that matter, mine). And I don't know what other heavy metals or chemical toxins might be present, and at what levels.

About The Author

George Cothran


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