San Francisco - Potrero Point pollution

Potrero Point pollution

State agencies are holding final hearings on Mirant Corporation's expansion of the Potrero Power Plant at 22nd and Illinois Street. The State Energy Commission (CEC) is lead agency, but concerned agencies include the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, Dept. of Toxic Substances Control, Fish and Game, the Regional Water Quality Board, NOAA, The National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. EPA and Army Corp of Engineers.

Within the compartmentalized myopia of government review where each department concerns itself only with the letter of it's mandate, none of these agencies has examined the cumulative effects of one hundred thirty years of industrial activity in the Potrero, for decades the largest and most important heavy industry waterfront in the west, location of the oldest continually running private shipyard in the country , and founding facilities of PG&E.

Beginning in the 1870's, the manufactured gas plants, iron foundries, steel mills, naval and civilian shipyards, steam generating plants, powder magazines, allied maritime manufacturies and surprisingly, a sugar refinery in the Potrero burned tons of coal, coke, lampblack and later millions of gallons or cubic feet of crude petroleum, refined oil and natural gas in dozens of open hearth furnaces, forges, steam boilers, retort kilns, coke ovens, gas generators and sugar boilers.

These industrial concerns, especially the manufactured gas plants(MGPs) that produced gas for gaslight and power, steam and electricity, poisoned the air and bay waters, the soil and the surrounding communities for decades, leaving behind huge quantities of hydrocarbons, sulphur, acids, powdered carbon, ash, slag, manganese, mercury, lead, copper, cadmium, zinc and other heavy metals. The facilities and their outdoor coal and ,lampblack stores, tar and fuel oil tanks and industrial processes polluted vast acreages of bay mud, artificial fill and millions of gallons of fresh and salt water. Constant dumping and dredging of polluted fill spread the problem to the entire Potrero shoreline while approximately two square miles of Potrero Hill was dynamited and dumped into the bay.

The PG&E plant produced millions of cubic feet of manufactured gas per year from coal and later oil and natural gas. By 1878, it was consuming nearly 300,000 pounds of coal each day and had an ash pit 200 feet long to catch flyash and cinders. By 1905 they produced 4 million cubic feet of gas per day. By 1911, they had a capacity of 20 million cubic feet per day. The first method of manufacturing gas for urban users utilized coal gasification(1870 t o 1907), then oil-gas generators(1888 to 1907), water-gas generators from 1904 to 1915, newer oil-gas generators from 1906 to 1924 and still newer oil-gas generators from 1915 until natural gas was discovered and imported into the Bay area in 1930 and the gas plant was placed on standby. The last time it was fired up was in 1953 and the entire MGP was dismantled in the late 1950's.

The MGP's were built on unpaved soil, their waste stream of coal dust, unburned carbon and lampblack were reused as fuel, dumped into the bay to the east or sent south by the trainload where it was mixed with soil and quarried stone to fill Islais Creek and build new land on bay mud from Cesar Chavez street to Candlestick Point east of what is now Third street. Standard practice of the day was for cinders and ash from the furnaces to be given away or sold for road grading.

And people in the Potrero and Hunter's Point wonder why they are sick.

The PG&E property lacks a continuous seawall, allowing bay tidal action to twice daily flush the polluted fill. The underground remnants of the shipyards, steel mills, sugar refinery and coal and oil gas production at the mills and the two MGP's, unmentioned in CEC documents, is very likely a labyrinth of highly polluted buried coal tramways, distribution tunnels and conduit, remains of huge ash, coal and coke storage pits, coal bunkers, foundations from fuel oil holders, acid and boneblack storage, wooden catchments, fuel lines, underground storage tanks, concrete vaults ïand sumps. Many were abandoned in place and simply filled in. Analysis will find petroleum hydrocarbons, kerosene, gasoline, deisel fuel, asbestos and PCBs.
These industrial artifacts lie among thousands, if not tens of thousand of treated wooden piles railroad ties, abandoned wharves and piers. The piles are a reverse porcupine of Douglas fir poles, many up to one hundred feet deep, contaminated with a wide array of wood preservatives from arsenic to lead to creosote to crude oil, providing a study in the history of wood preservation technology. Removal will create a direct vertical channel to the deepest bay muds and leaving them in place will continue the downgradient flow of tainted ground water into the bay.

The Mirant proposal includes demolition of the historic Station A, the huge 1910 Brick edifice visible from the surrounding neighborhood, once a state of the art oil fired electricity generatin g facility, evidence of the constant rebuilding in the area as technologies changed. Station A was abandoned in 1979 and if it has not been sand blasted inside, remains saturated with PCB's and other pollutants, but the CEC's mitigation plans recommend no more special treatment than hosing the dust as the wrecking ball dismantles the pollution tainted brick and concrete.

Previous dredging at the shipyards during 1970's was required to be deposited at sea beyond the waters of the state of California but dredged fill from the Mirant project is slated to be transported to the Altamont landfill, not unlike the contaminated dirt from the Pac Bell Park which was first taken the Altamont in unlined trucks then removed to a landfill in Nevada. The environmental legacy includes pollution from the Navy's tenure during both world wars through the 1960's and illegally dumped wastes in < the pier 70 - 72 landfill.

On top of the historic pollution, more recent insults in the Potrero include sandblasted lead paints in the shipways, leaking waste barrels and underground diesel oil storage tanks. In 1986, the shipyard was sued by the city for mishandling PCB laden electrical equipment and periodic discharges of raw sewage. Currently the city uses the area for storage of towed and abandoned automobiles that leak fluids onto broken pavement that drains toward the bay. The Pick Your Parts Auto Dismantler resided on dirt lots adjacent to the power plant and illegal toxic dumping into the bay occurred at what was called the Wilson Warehouse to the north.

Numerous trucking concerns and a truck marshaling yard, covered by test wells, lie directly north of the power plant on former Naval ship building ways ¨that were filled in 1970 with construction rubble, soil, concrete and non-permitted wastes. Chemicals found in limited testing in bay mud and the old Navy slips include hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, chlorobenzene and xylene. Other wastes identified include paint, oil, batteries, thinner, adhesives, herbicides, acids, and unknown 55 gallon drums.

The two major owners of the filled land in the Potrero are the Port of San Francisco and PG&E, before selling out to Mirant. The environmental liabilities still belong to PG&E but are virtually ignored in the Mirant application beyond the statement that 4000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments will be dredged. Very little hard data is currently available to the public.

Potrero Hill, Dogpatch and Hunters Point neighbors should place little faith in official watchdogs. By example, consider the mitigation efforts in excavated fill from the current Mission Bay Project ∫. The excavations for the new University of California campus are covered under local, state and federal regulations, but on a recent walk through, open piles of polluted fill reeking of hydrocarbons lie only partially covered, exposed to wind and rain. Plastic coverings and hay bail berms are incomplete, a constant flow of water from what appears to be a broken water main spews into the center of the mitigation yard, leaching toxic soils directly into open city storm sewers(since December at least). Homeless people live amidst the exposed piles of railroad ties, construction debris, wooden piles, rubble and old pipe. Bottle diggers and scavengers pick through exposed hills of unknown nineteenth century garbage and fill, remnants of "Dumpville".

One final issue beyond the pollution might color public interest in the Potrero. The Port of San Francisco has completely failed in it's responsibility to preserve remnants of this once thriving … industrial village, for a hundred years the most important heavy industry site in the west. The first locomotive, typewriter, printing press, cable car equipment and track, the famous battleship Oregon and steel for many of San Francisco's great 19th century buildings came from the Potrero. Already identified as worthy of historical landmark status by the San Francisco Landmarks Board are the 1917 Frederick Meyer Renaissance Revival Bethlehem office building, the Charles P. Weeks designed 1912 Power House #1, the 1896 Union Iron Works office designed by Percy & Hamilton and the huge 1885 Machine shops. All comprise the most endangered group of historical properties in California and all suffer from vandalism, earthquake risk, exposure to the elements and official neglect. The Port claims they cannot landmark a working shipyard, but the San Francisco Drydock Company has relinquished all of the historic properties and most of the land back to the Port.

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