COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JUAN VARGAS

A case study in favor of environmental stewardship

As statewide elected officials (and past city councilmembers) who represent Barrio Logan and our working waterfront, we are concerned about what happens in San Diego Bay, one of our region’s most precious assets. Not only does the bay provide a breeding ground that supports marine life, which contributes to our food chain, but it also promotes tourism and serves as the linchpin for an economically critical industry that contains some of the most prevalent maritime businesses in the nation. These companies, in turn, have created a thriving economic hub that generates thousands of jobs and millions of tax dollars each year in the San Diego region.

Before government regulation prevented discharging into coastal waters, human and toxic waste was dumped into the bays and waterways around the country. The city of San Diego’s first health report, published in 1888, characterized San Diego Bay as a "smelly landfill" of human waste and construction debris. Much has changed over the decades. Environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act, helped fuel a change in policy and opinion about our precious resources in California and nationwide. As a result, San Diego Bay is much cleaner today than it has been in years, but pollution still remains. It should be removed in a responsible manner that balances the environmental oversights of our past with the economic realities of our future.

Today, we finally have a clear path forward that will improve our bay and ensure that it can continue to be a sparkling jewel that provides a venue for a multitude of purposes, ranging from robust economic activity to an ecological and conservation wonderland to a recreational haven for residents and visitors alike.

For many years, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has worked on a plan to clean up contaminated sediment on the bay floor that is the result of more than 100 years of development and activity in the area.

Currently, state-appointed members of our Water Board are considering a cleanup plan that we hope they will adopt, as written. Many parties, including the city of San Diego, environmentalists, shipyards, the U.S. Navy, the Unified Port of San Diego and SDG&E have been involved in these discussions. The proposal calls for the removal of hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediment near the shipyards and to establish a long-term monitoring plan. This action represents the best opportunity in recent memory to move forward with a fair and balanced cleanup of San Diego Bay.

While it is impossible to attribute the responsibility of decades of contamination to a handful of current businesses — given that government and the community also shoulder responsibility — this plan holds all parties accountable proportionately. This is especially true given that much of the pollution in the bay was discharged by entities that are no longer in business in San Diego. At a cost of $72 million, the amount could be considered untenable during these tough economic times. Yet this decision is the right one because it represents a balanced approach and brings closure to a debate of more than 30 years.

The proposed plan is fair because research shows that the bay is already starting to heal itself. In addition, science supports this perspective, as evidenced by the team of respected engineers that developed the cleanup plan. A recent study concluded that a more extensive cleanup of the area would only increase the cost without making a significant impact. Further, a more costly cleanup would surely put a burden on maritime businesses that operate in the area during a time when the jobs generated by these companies are one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak economic outlook.

Decision-makers should remember that prudent public policy is committed to balancing a desired result with the cost of implementation to ensure that resources are allocated evenly to all needs. What’s more, the San Diego Water Board’s own professional staff recently declared that it is “perhaps the most significant action taken to date by the San Diego Water Board to enhance and protect the beneficial uses of San Diego Bay.”

Finally, if the San Diego Water Board does not adopt this cleanup order as written (or without modifications), it may be many more years — perhaps even decades — before the bay is finally cleaned. The matter will surely be appealed and lead to a long protracted court battle.

We urge the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to adopt this historic order so we can get on with the cleanup of one our greatest treasures.

Vargas is a state senator, and Hueso is a state assemblymember.

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