Eric Carbajal goes fishing Sunday mornings on San Diego Bay-something he's been doing regularly for at least seven years. If the fish are big enough, he'll consider making them a meal, but he usually tosses them back. He worries that the bay might be too polluted.
Other fishermen he encounters-mostly Latinos and Filipinos from nearby neighborhoods-don't seem to notice the beer cans floating in and out with the tide. Nor do these fishermen seem concerned with the Navy ships and oil tankers that cruise by, churning up dirty water in their wake.
They tell Carbajal, "If the fish are still alive, the water must not be that bad."
Last year, he got a call from someone with the Environmental Health Coalition, an organization that keeps an eye on industry's effects on low-income neighborhoods, who told Carbajal that he and his family risk toxic contamination if they eat bay fish.
"I couldn't believe what they were telling me," he said. "Everyone knows the bay's polluted, but I didn't know it was that bad."
The person from EHC told Carbajal about studies of San Diego Bay dating back to the late '80s showing high concentrations of mercury, copper, zinc, lead, chlordane, fuel oil, PCBs and other toxins in the bay's sediment.
The most recent study, ordered by regional water-quality authorities, shows particularly high levels of contamination in sediment around two shipyards adjacent to one of Carbajal's favorite fishing spots.
Toxins in the sediment there pose a significant threat to aquatic life and human health, according to officials with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. But the shipyards-National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) and Southwest Marine-say otherwise. They argue that while the sediment may be polluted, the toxicity levels are within the same range as other areas around the bay and don't pose any additional risk to people or marine life.
The difference of opinion stems from how both sides interpret a study commissioned by NASSCO and Southwest Marine by order of the water-quality board.
Exponent, a private consulting firm that authored the study, published a 1,226-page report in 2001 claiming that contaminants in shipyard-area sediment pose little risk to humans and wildlife; biological damage detected in and around the docks can't be blamed on the shipyards because other companies operating around the bay, as well as the city of San Diego, also dump in the area; and cleanup in the shipyards can't be done without impacting shipyard operations.
But the water-quality board's staff did its own analysis based on Exponent's data and found the study had seriously downplayed the risk. A resulting tentative cleanup and abatement order implicated not only NASSCO and Southwest Marine, but also six other current and past users of the bay shoreline between Sampson Street and the mouth of Chollas Creek. The order points to the city of San Diego, Marine Construction and Design Company, Campbell Industries Inc., Chevron, British Petroleum, San Diego Gas and Electric and the United States Navy. (Please see side story on Page 11.)
A public workshop to discuss the tentative cleanup order was scheduled for June 1, with a public hearing set for Wednesday, June 29, but the parties cited in the order asked for more time to respond, so the water-quality board rescheduled the workshop for June 29. The hearing has been postponed indefinitely.
EHC's Laura Hunter said the delay is an attempt by the shipyards and others implicated to stall the cleanup.
But NASSCO environmental manager Mike Chee said the shipyards can't be expected to comment or act on the clean-up plan without seeing a particular report that explains how the water-quality regulators determined the clean-up was necessary. That report, he says, has been kept from the parties cited in the order. Given the cleanup carries a $96-million price tag, it's understandable why Chee is asking for evidence that his employer is at fault for toxins in the bay.
But environmentalists want action.
"There is some frustration that NASSCO and Southwest Marine want absolute certainty," said Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego Baykeeper. "I think we have pretty strong evidence that the shipyards are responsible for a great deal-even if not 100 percent-of the contamination around their leaseholds, even if we cannot pinpoint specific releases leading to particular sediment contamination."
EHC found Eric Carbajal through his boss, an EHC board member, and asked him to participate in a survey of people who fish the bay for food.
Fishing is in Carbajal's blood. He learned it from his father, a refrigerator salesman from Tijuana with U.S. resident-alien status, which allowed him to travel freely between his home in Mexico and work in the states. In 1985, he saved enough money to buy a house in San Ysidro and move his family to the U.S. permanently. He took Carbajal and his younger brother, Christian, both U.S.-born citizens, to fish off the Embarcadero, 24th Street and Shelter Island piers.
The brothers anchored their fishing lines to beer cans and pulled in open-mouthed catches of the day-mostly mackerel, halibut and sand bass, but also shovel-nosed guitarfish and smoothhound sharks. They reeled in fish after fish with their dad and ate what they could for dinner that night, freezing the rest for later.
They couldn't know that a decade later, regulators would find the spotted sand bass toxic.
But for the Carbajal family, it's the fish from the market that are suspect. Where did they come from? Were they farm-bred with growth hormones? How long have they been on ice? Anything is better than market fish. Besides, as fishermen point out, if the fish they're catching are still alive....
The bay has a history of industrial activity dating back to 1880, according to the San Diego Unified Port District, which owns and leases much of the bay coastline, including the land held by NASSCO and Southwest Marine.
Prior to passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, pollution was an unfortunate side effect of industry-specifically defense contracting and oil in San Diego-Reznik said, and coastal companies saved millions of dollars dumping waste in the bay rather than disposing of it in a more environmentally safe manner.
In a 1999 statewide study by the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees regional water quality boards throughout California, called San Diego Bay a "high priority toxic hot spot."
But even with this tag, the focus has been largely on prevention rather than cleanup. It's only now that state agencies and environmental advocates are looking closely at the bay's polluted past and looking for ways to deal with it.
"The laws are being interpreted more strictly," Reznik said, "and it's no longer just about what we are doing to prevent pollution, but what we are doing to remediate."
San Diego Baykeeper sprung up around the same time the Regional Water Quality Control Board's campaign to keep pollution in check was gaining momentum-roughly a decade ago. According to documents, the board had already approached Teledyne Industries Inc. in 1986 to set plans to begin the cleanup and in 1995 went to Campbell Shipyards as well as NASSCO and Southwest Marine with the same request.
Teledyne, an aeronautics engineering firm, completed a $2 million sediment cap project in 1998 on property it leased near Lindbergh Field. The plan called for five feet of clean sand and gravel to cover the contaminated area while also providing for future monitoring of the sight for leakage.
The Regional Board issued a revised clean up and abatement order to Teledyne in May when they discovered toxins accumulating over the cap, the result of storm-water runoff. Campbell, which leased property on Shelter Island until 1999, turned the abatement order over to the Port District, which, in 2004, adopted a cap plan similar to Teledyne's, at an estimated cost of $14 million.
But a cap isn't an option for NASSCO and Southwest Marine, the cleanup order states, because ship traffic stirs up sediment. Plus, the science of studying pollution, EHC's Hunter said, has become more precise since the Campbell and Teledyne sites were examined, "so cleanup is going to be more expensive."
When the Regional Board approached NASSCO and Southwest Marine as early as 1991 to participate in a cleanup plan, the shipyards said they preferred to wait and see if the pollution would take care of itself, said Craig Carlisle, a senior geologist at the Regional Board.
But the board came back stronger in 1995, ordering the shipyards to perform the study.
The board set preliminary cleanup levels for the shipyards equal to the Campbell project, but the shipyards said that they'd rather wait for final cleanup levels than perform cleanup again when the final levels are set, according to Regional Board documents. Board officials told the shipyards to hire a consultant to study the sediment and that's where Exponent came in.
Exponent collected data and analyzed its potential risk to aquatic life, aquatic-dependant life and humans, finding no more risk than that at the Campbell and Teledyne sites. Today, many of the docks Carbajal fished with his father are marred with signs posted by the county Health Department warning of toxic water. Other signs posted by pier leaseholders prohibit fishing altogether and without explanation. But this doesn't stop Carbajal from floating into the bay in his small inflatable tube. Some fishers, he said, go out at night when they have less chance of being caught.
On a Sunday in May, Carbajal rose from his bed in San Ysidro at 6 a.m., loaded his tiny fishing vessel into the back of his pickup and stuffed his backpack with supplies: a knife, pliers, a tin of rubber sardines. Sometimes he buys live bait, but only if he knows he'll be casting from land all day.
"It's hard to keep minnows and anchovies alive on the float tube," he said. "It's too small, and they spill out."
On his way to the bay, Carbajal picked up his buddy, Dave Rodriguez, in Barrio Logan. The pair met while attending San Diego State University. Carbajal majored in Chicano studies and history, Rodriguez in psychology.
At the day's destination, the ferry dock on Coronado Island, Carbajal assessed the water level. "We're gonna go to another spot," he said. "The tide's too low."
This time of year, the tide is always a little low, he explained, and that makes it difficult to catch anything close to shore. The bay is better suited to fishing between October and January, he said, but he was hoping for some luck.
Guys like Carbajal and Rodriguez are typical of the people who participated in EHC's survey of 109 bay fishers. Of the respondents, 57 percent were Latino, 39 percent Filipino, with the majority living in National City, Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and Barrio Logan. Surveyors gathered information at Convention Center Pier, Pepper Park Pier in National City and Chula Vista Pier at the southern end of the bay, where they found more than 60 percent of fishers eat fish they catch and 41 percent feed it to their children.
With 25 percent fishing daily and another 31 percent fishing weekly, EHC contends that the group is at significant risk to toxins.
Most of the time, Carbajal and Rodriguez catch and release, but they'll occasionally keep fish that are big enough to eat. Carbajal remembers a time when his freezer was full of fish, but today he releases more than he catches, thanks to what he now knows about the bay.
But the men appear to derive something from the bay other than sustenance-a communal solitude, a men's zone where they release their problems and share their frustrations. The two friends pick their lures and decide on the best places to cast with no more than a head nod or a glance.
A 25-year-old union organizer with a 32-month-old daughter and a pregnant wife, Carbajal doesn't have much time for himself. Nor does Rodriguez, 27-he had to leave an underpaid job he really loved at a nonprofit home for developmentally disabled children for a better-paying job with an express-delivery service that requires six 15-hour days from him every week.
But the two find solitude together on Sundays, fishing. It's cathartic. They concentrate on their casts. They concentrate on motion and shadows in the water. They talk about their lives. Carbajal is concerned about his wife. Her pregnancy has been a lot more painful and marked by more doctor visits than the first.
Rodriguez wants to buy a house in San Diego someday, but he's afraid he won't be able to afford it. He wants to go to grad school for psychology and return to meaningful work. He calls San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy a "punk" for costing taxpayers money.
The duo's next stop is across the Silver Strand land bridge to Fiddler's Cove where the stench of decay wafts up from the tar-colored shore. "Be careful walking here," Carbajal says. "It's nasty."
He walks in front with the controlled presence of an experienced tradesman, and he performs tasks steadily to avoid error or injury.
After a few minutes reeling in seaweed-low tide again making shore-casting difficult-the two pack up again and head to "the Logan spot," at the end of Cesar Chavez Parkway in Barrio Logan, right next to the NASSCO and Southwest Marine yards. Here, Carbajal pulls his float tube out, puts on his waders and pushes the tube into the water. It's V-shaped and hunter green. Carbajal powers the tube with flipper-strapped feet dangling off the back.
He's a lone man floating in San Diego Bay, trying to catch some fish, in the shadow of industry.
On June 2, NASSCO took CityBeat for a tour of its yard. The company had extended the invitation, unaware that the paper was working on this story, as part of a public-relations campaign driven by the Monger Company, a NASSCO-hired PR firm. CityBeat was one of many local media invited to take such a tour, part of an effort to demonstrate NASSCO's environmental controls and "show everyone what we do down here," said Chee, the company's environmental manager.
NASSCO builds 900-foot tankers for oil companies and 700-foot supply ships for the U.S. Navy. Since 1959, it's delivered 58 ships to commercial enterprises and 52 ships to the Navy. It's a $750-million-a-year company with 4,200 employees, and, according to company literature, the only remaining full-service shipyard on the West Coast.
The tour that day followed a 20-minute presentation heralding NASSCO's economic impact on San Diego-$160 million in payroll and $2 million in property taxes annually.
The yard is enormous, 80 acres of land and 46 acres of water. It's so big employees use golf carts and bicycles to get around. And there is always movement, shifts of workers coming in and out, welding, hauling, checking dials. Most of the workers wear overalls, jeans or jumpsuits; all have helmets and faces smudged with oil and dirt.
NASSCO has two water-treatment facilities. In 2004, the company filtered 4,475 gallons of metal and oil waste from 4 million gallons of water used in manufacturing processes, such as cooling and hydroblasting, and another 7 million gallons of wastewater and sea water captured from docked ships, according to the company.
The shipyard sealed all of its storm drains in 2001, and in 2004 captured 9 million gallons of rainwater, dumping it into holding areas all over the site. Water fills the steelyard up to 2 feet deep, Chee said, rusting materials and impacting productivity. NASSCO estimates the cost of treating the water exceeds $300,000 a year, though productivity losses were not available.
"We've had to send employees home and do what we can until the rain stops," he said.
Chee says NASSCO did what it was told by the water-quality board-it paid for a toxicity study and assessed its responsibility for cleanup. "The methods were agreed upon and the report went to the board," he said. "Somewhere in there, we believe, [water-quality board] staff put in their own assumptions."
But, in a phone interview later that day, Carlisle at the water-quality board said the Exponent report diluted the data by analyzing the toxic risk to humans and wildlife against a greater length of bay coastline than was included in the sediment samples, whereas board staff measured sediment's impact exclusively within the shipyard areas.
"There is plenty of methodology in the order," Carlisle said, much of it referring to standards in the Clean Water Act and from the American Society of Testing Materials. More important he would like the shipyards to focus on responding to the cleanup portion of the order and not concern themselves too much with the methodology behind the order.
About the past dumping of chemicals, Chee said, "We were following the standards of the day."
Carbajal snags something and reels it in. It's a halibut, thin and wide, white as ivory on one side, green as seaweed on the other. It has nasty, sharp teeth, and experience tells Carbajal not to dig the hook out with his hand.
Rodriquez tosses him a pocketknife from the pier. Then Rodriguez's phone rings.
"It's your wife, man," he says. "She says she has to go to the hospital."
"No shit?" Carbajal responds. His tone is calm yet concerned. "We're done here anyway."
Carbajal's son Emiliano was born later that day. In the time since, he hasn't returned to the bay, but he hasn't gone into work much, either. He's been home, taking advantage of the state's Family Leave Act, which provides 50 percent of workers' salaries, helping his wife with their newborn and their daughter.
Meanwhile, a boycott he helped organize against the Hotel Del Coronado ended on June 13, when the hotel and the union reached an agreement.
"They caved," he said, "so now I'm kind of out of a job, but I'll be working on a 10-city international campaign, soon."
If the hotel and the union can come together, is there hope for the regulators, environmentalists and bayside industry?
"I wish [the shipyards] would just work with EHC and the water board to fix the problem and stop producing their own reports to dispute the evidence," he said. "I want to keep fishing the bay, keep eating fish from the bay and trust that if I take it home to my family, it will be OK."
A final Regional Board vote on the cleanup order is expected in August, but with the workshop and hearing delays, there is some doubt whether a vote will happen at that time. Both NASSCO's Chee and Baykeeper's Reznik, however, anticipate that when the final order is adopted, it will be appealed, first to the state board and then to the district court.