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Foul Ball 

The Giants' new stadium site is almost certainly seeping a stew of toxic chemicals into the bay. Why doesn't the government care?

Wednesday, Oct 1 1997
The environmental impact report for the San Francisco Giants' planned ballpark at China Basin expresses a certain eloquent regard for the Pacific herring, which spawns in the bay nearby.

The report, prepared for the Giants in part by the environmental firm of Geomatrix Consultants Inc., points out the economic importance of Clupea harengus pallasi (its roe is exported to Japan) and establishes the threat that construction of the bayside ballpark poses to the herring.

Rain and site watering (needed to keep toxic dust particles from becoming airborne and harming workers) could, the report notes, wash exposed soil into the bay during construction, cutting off sunlight and oxygen and killing algae the herring feed on. The soil-laden runoff, the report says, could also cover and choke the eggs that herring deposit on bay-bottom rocks in the area. And, the report acknowledges, the soil at the ballpark site is horribly toxic, and the chemicals and metals in the dirt, if washed into the bay, could deform herring offspring.

The environmental impact report therefore proposes all manner of measures to reduce the risk to the herring of San Francisco Bay: When tugboats are used to assist construction from the bay side of the project, the Giants will contract with "shallow-draft" tugs that cut down on churning that might keep toxic runoff suspended in the water. Likewise, tugboat captains will be told to run their engines at low speeds. When the team drives columns into the underwater soil to support the bayside portion of the ballpark, it will throw up a curtain around the area to contain any toxic soil released. Biologists and fisheries experts will be called in to monitor herring hatches. The team will even require construction companies to use catch nets when working over water, so dropped tools don't fall into the channel.

But as elaborate as the Giants' herring-protection program seems, it represents little but icing on a toxic cake.

Because of a strange mixture of lax or nonexistent regulation, scientific uncertainty, weird politics, and garden-variety greed, the toxic soil the Giants will take great pains to keep from washing into the bay during construction will remain in place underneath the stadium once it is finished in the year 2000.

Those pollutants are unlikely to pose a direct threat to humans; except for the baseball field itself, much of the stadium site will be covered with concrete that will keep toxics and people separate.

But, environmental experts agree, tidal action can and probably will move buried pollutants from the stadium site into San Francisco Bay. Those pollutants clearly are threats to some of the aquatic life in the bay.

Metals in the soil of the stadium site are known to impede the ability of harbor seals and sea lions to process oxygen. (Both species are legally protected and call China Basin Channel home.) Other chemicals found on the site are carcinogenic; can damage the reproductive systems of fish, birds, and seals and sea lions; and may kill the clams, worms, and algae the birds and fish feed on. Among the avian species that live on the channel is the California brown pelican, an endangered species.

"What's been going into the bay all along will continue going into the bay after the ballpark is built," says Steve Morse, the head of the Regional Water Quality Control Board's toxic cleanup division, which signed off on the Giants' plans to leave the toxic soil and ground water in place.

Environmental groups say removing the contaminated soil from the stadium site would be relatively inexpensive, costing the team approximately $5 million. City construction projects have routinely called for this type of polluted soil to be excavated and moved to hazardous-waste landfills. At press time, environmentalists were still negotiating in secret sessions with the team, hoping to extract concessions and avoid a lawsuit. The deadline for the lawsuit and the negotiations was Sept. 30.

Regardless of the outcome of those negotiations, the city of San Francisco and the state of California have decided to allow the Giants to ignore the chemical stew under their new stadium. That decision could set a precedent for other polluted land lining the city's bayfront -- and pose a long-term pollution threat to the bay.

And what is in the stew the government says can stay beneath Pacific Bell Ballpark?

Lead, nickel, toluene, mercury, benzene, and arsenic, among other poisons and carcinogens. At levels many, many times higher than the legal definition for toxic waste.

By now every baseball fan, and almost every San Franciscan, knows that the new Giants stadium will be built on the bayfront, on a site bordered by Third and Second streets and King Street and the bay at the mouth of China Basin Channel. The Giants' publicity machine makes the most of this waterfront site in precious commercials that show a home-run ball landing in the bay.

Baseballs, even many of them, probably could not harm the aquatic environment of China Basin.

But that environment has real problems; it is heavily compromised by extremely dangerous industrial toxins. One might say it's teetering on a precipice. No aquatic life survives at the west end of the channel because the sediment is highly polluted by ammonia and sulfides that came from sewage. The environmental group Communities for a Better Environment deemed the mouth of the channel a toxic hot-spot in the mid-'80s because of the elevated levels of heavy metals -- including nickel, lead, and selenium -- in the bay mud there.

For more than a century, the San Francisco waterfront from the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street south to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard has been continuously used for industrial purposes. Dig a well anywhere along that waterfront, and chances are good you'll come up with a sample of toxic pollutants hundreds of times above hazardous-waste standards.

The tenants currently housed on the Giants' parcel, which is owned by the Port of San Francisco, are typical of the kinds of businesses that have used the area.

About The Author

George Cothran


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