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Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
The Dirt on the Giants' Dirt
Forget most of what you've read in the papers, seen on television, and heard on the radio about the San Francisco Giants' toxic dirt debacle. What you've been told is so incomplete, shallowly researched, and beside the point that it doesn't even begin to approximate truth.

Following time-honored Bay Area traditions, our daily newspaper and broadcast outlets (some owned by companies that have a financial interest in the Giants) spent last week repeating Giants spin, rather than attempting to accomplish journalism. At every conceivable level, the fair-haired boys who own San Francisco's Major League Baseball franchise got a media break.

Actually, the Giants' top executives didn't just get a break. They received a journalistic gift -- the gift of having potentially criminal behavior covered up and reported as a routine tale of government bungling.

This is the story the Giants and our incurious press worked together to present to you:

1) The Giants dug up a bunch of contaminated soil while building a new stadium in the industrial wastelands along China Basin Channel, and needed to do something with it.

2) State officials tested the soil, and made an honest mistake: They deemed the 27,000 tons of soil, which contained lead and other nasty industrial byproducts, to be nonhazardous, and told the Giants so.

3) The Giants started honestly hauling the dirt to a landfill in Livermore.
4) But then the state discovered its honest mistake.
5) So the Giants, honest as the day is long, stopped hauling the dirt, pending further testing of the soil.

This story is pleasant and uplifting. It follows a straight line from 1) to 5). It is also fiction.

The truth of the matter is much darker, much more complicated, and much less favorably disposed toward the Giants.

The full extent of the Giants' connivance related to the illegal dumping of its toxic waste is not yet known. But this much is clear: The state never actually gave the Giants approval to dump tons of highly contaminated dirt in a landfill meant for nontoxic materials.

And the team knew, or should have known, that it was breaking state law when it loaded up convoys of trucks, sometimes in the middle of the night, between Feb. 26 and March 2 and hauled the toxic dirt to a non-hazardous-waste dump in Alameda County.

This is not a story about people making honest mistakes, in five easy steps. No, this is the tale of a crude muscle job that backfired on the Giants in a big way -- until the press came to the rescue.

For the past six to eight months, the Giants have had a small mountain of toxic soil sitting on the site of the team's new baseball stadium, within a few hundred feet of San Francisco Bay. The Giants' attempts to handle this mountain seem to have violated environmental laws in several ways.

First, for the past several months, most if not all of the hill was exposed to the air, wind, and rain. For a very long time the hill of lead-laced dirt had no covering whatsoever. Contaminated dirt could have washed into the bay, or flown away in the breeze to be breathed in by workers and people who work nearby. Not until about a month ago did workers place tarps over a small portion of the pile. Not until last week was a more thorough tarping job done.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, a state regulatory agency, is currently investigating the Giants in regard to possible violation of regulations regarding toxic waste storage. If the district finds against the Giants, the team could be liable for fines. "The Air District has no record of the Giants ever contacting the Air District about the soil," says Luna Salaver, an Air Quality District spokesperson.

The second, and more serious, legal question involves dirt disposal. Sometime in January this year, the China Basin Ballpark Corp. and its environmental consultant, Geomatrix Consultants Inc., decided they had to get rid of the dirt mountain. Apparently, the Giants didn't want to spend $1 million or more sending the 27,000 tons of toxic dirt to the type of landfill designed to handle hazardous waste, known in environmental jargonese as a Class 1 facility.

Instead, the Giants wanted to do one of two things: use the dirt in the construction of a nearby parking lot. Or send it to the Altamont Landfill in Livermore, a Class 2 facility meant only for nonhazardous waste such as municipal garbage.

Since 1996, when Geomatrix conducted soil tests on the ballpark site, both the consulting group and the Giants knew that some of the soil at the site contained lead well beyond legal thresholds. But back then the team had planned on leaving the soil in place and building a ballpark on top of it. The main regulatory agency reviewing the Giants' environmental impact assumptions, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, accepted the team's argument that the lead in the soil was not soluble, and would not wash into San Francisco Bay with tidal actions.

The Giants broke ground on the new stadium on Dec. 11, 1997, and everything proceeded according to plan -- at least initially. All the soil disturbed during the construction would go back on site and, eventually, underneath the ballpark.

But during heavy rains last year, the Giants decided to excavate the site and cover the footprint of the ball field with broken concrete blocks, hoping this would improve drainage and ameliorate muddy site conditions. This excavation produced the 27,000 tons of dirt the team was unable to put back in place under the ballpark.

And on Jan. 1, 1999, these extra 27,000 tons of dirt became, by the workings of a new California law, hazardous waste that could be disposed of only -- only -- at a Class 1 landfill.

About The Author

George Cothran


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