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Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
Toxic Rats
I have to confess: It was fun to watch.
Last week, the very sweet arrangement (not a conspiracy) among the San Francisco Giants, state regulators, Waste Management Inc., and the ghost of Willie Brown to violate state environmental law for the purposes of corporate enrichment fell apart in public.

The unraveling occurred at a Board of Supervisors hearing, when one of the parties to the arrangement (not a ...) realized that a scapegoat tag was being carefully fitted to its back. This realization, it seems, began a Watergate-like round of blame-laying that soon had all parties to the arrangement (not ...) selling each other out in vastly entertaining ways.

Even Willie Brown, who had until then participated in the arrangement only in spectral form, got dumped in the grease.

And then, after the Giants and their co-arrangers had ratted one another out, the supervisors -- and this was a feat to behold -- let them all off the hook. Completely.

This drama of revenge and reprisal was accompanied by an intriguing mystery subplot: the disappearance of San Francisco BayKeeper, the self-appointed environmental watchdog over the San Francisco Giants.

Why would BayKeeper's director take a three-week vacation to sunny Spain at this most critical of junctures? Why did none of the group's board members or lawyers appear or speak in his stead? Could any of this have anything to do with a $70,000 donation from an owner of the Giants to BayKeeper?

Those questions and many others will be answered, and the 70 grand will be addressed, later.

But first to the fun: the deal, the people involved, the probable motives, and the disintegration of a complicated arrangement (not, repeat, not a conspiracy) in a wonderful orgy of public finger-pointing and nastiness.

For those of you who have been in Tibet for the last few weeks, some background: The Giants are building a new ballpark in the industrial wastelands along China Basin Channel. During construction, the team dug up a bunch of contaminated soil. Twenty-seven thousand tons of soil full of lead and other nasty toxins.

Hoping to avoid the cost of trucking the dirt to a hazardous-waste landfill, the Giants asked the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency, for some help. The agency certainly had a motive to provide that help: The DTSC is full of scared Republican rabbits who are worried that the new Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and the new, Gray-appointed director of the state EPA might fire their sorry asses.

So the Giants, either directly or by implication, called on Mayor Willie Brown -- or used his specter, given that Brown is a longtime Gray ally -- to persuade (not muscle) the DTSC into creating paperwork that appeared to give the team permission to dump its dirt in a municipal landfill, rather than a toxic-waste impoundment. Such a "reclassification" of the dirt would allow the team to save $1 million or more in disposal costs.

The Giants immediately started trucking the dirt away to a nonhazardous landfill in Livermore run by the garbage behemoth Waste Management Inc.

The Giants tried very hard to keep the reclassification of their lead-laced dirt into nonhazardous waste a secret.

But by week before last, environmentalists had figured out the secret heart of this dirty mess: The Giants had been warned by DTSC staff that the removal of the dirt would be illegal under a new law that went into effect on Jan. 1. And they had been warned before they started hauling the dirt to Livermore. In short, the Giants knowingly broke the law.

This unpleasant information was going to come out sooner rather than later, and the partners to the arrangement apparently decided it was time to cut and run.

At a meeting of the Health and Public Safety Committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last week, a representative of the state Department of Toxic Substance Control took the microphone and immediately went John Dean on the Giants.

Bob Stephens, the director of the DTSC division of science, pollution, and technology, explained that the Giants actually had not been given permission to dump their toxic dirt in Livermore. The agency's first letter to the team said its dirt could be considered nonhazardous under one law, which pertained to levels of water-soluble lead, but could not be so "reclassified" in regard to a new law.

"We told them even if we reclassify their soil [as nonhazardous], there is still a new law that has to be honored," said Bob Stephens. That new law, which became effective Jan. 1, requires that waste containing more than a set percentage of lead be disposed of in a hazardous-waste facility.

Stephens then dropped a bombshell: The DTSC was holding firm in its judgment. The Giants' dirt was hazardous; it had to be taken to a safer, more expensive, hazardous-waste landfill.

The DTSC was sticking it to the Giants. The agency had had enough of the team's bully-boy behavior, and was making a public ruling that, in essence, accused the Giants of violating state environmental law.

And then the ratting began.
Although not a member of the committee, Board President Tom Ammiano was sitting in on the hearing, and he asked the Giants' greasy-haired general counsel, Jack Bair, why the team had broken the law. So Bair ratted out Waste Management Inc.

Bair said Waste Management had told the Giants that its Livermore dump could legally accept waste above the legal lead threshold set in law.

(Later, Charles White, Waste Management's Capitol lobbyist, went before the committee and got a measure of revenge on the Giants. He revealed that his firm would be asking the team to remove the 9,000 tons of toxic dirt it had succeeded in transporting to Livermore, and that the dump wouldn't be interested in taking any of the dirt in the future, even if regulators said it was legal to do so.)

About The Author

George Cothran


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