A Los Angeles-area environmental group that for years has fought a controversial development planned atop one of the nation's largest methane fields is now taking on SeaWorld over the construction of its "Journey to Atlantis" thrill ride.
California Earth Corps, based in Lakewood just north of Long Beach, is demanding that the California Coastal Commission revoke the development permit it issued last September for the 95-foot-tall "splashdown" ride. The environmental group claims that SeaWorld "intentionally" withheld information from the commission about potentially lethal concentrations of hydrogen-sulfide gas found near the ride site.
The so-called water-coaster ride, now under construction, was originally proposed to hug the shore of Mission Bay but was moved slightly inland-at the request of commission staff-and closer to a now-closed toxic landfill that the city is currently in the process of studying.
One aspect of the landfill that the city hopes to determine is its exact boundaries. The landfill, used for decades by numerous local defense contractors as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals and materials, was closed in 1959. Records of the landfill are sketchy about the dimensions of the toxic site.
The epicenter of Earth Corps' argument for permit revocation is a January 2002 study prepared by IT Corp. for SeaWorld San Diego innocuously titled, "Results of Soil Vapor Assessment/SeaWorld Expansion Plan, 16-Acre Tract." Buried in the half-inch-thick report is a reference to the discovery of an "unusually high concentration" of hydrogen sulfide at a monitoring well about 300 yards to the south of the thrill-ride location.
The report somewhat soft-pedals the find, which it says is "likely either an anomaly or the result of a deposit of sulfur materials." But the report does note that concentrations of hydrogen sulfide of 10 parts per million by volume (ppmv) is considered "dangerous" and 100 ppmv is said to be "immediately dangerous to life or health." The hydrogen-sulfide level found at the monitoring well, the report said, was 1,820 ppmv.
In the past, SeaWorld has explained away the potential danger by noting that the measurement was taken 15 feet below ground, suggesting that the concentration at the surface would be 100 to 1,000 times less potent, but an attorney for California Earth Corps told CityBeat that the theme-park operator is missing the point.
"Hydrogen sulfide is just something that you don't want to play with," explained Santa Monica-based attorney Sabrina Venskus. "You want to make sure it's mitigated well. And if these people [at SeaWorld] aren't even acknowledging that there's a hydrogen-sulfide problem, then that's cause for serious concern."
Venskus should know. For years, she has been fighting a proposed 2,500-home development known as Playa Vista just south of Marina del Rey near Los Angeles that would sit on a massive deposit of methane.
Venskus noted that the Coastal Commission rejected SeaWorld's bid in May to expand its parking lot to the east, based on knowledge that the city was in the midst of studying the landfill's effects on the area. However, that was a topic that did not arise when the commission approved several new projects proposed by SeaWorld, including the coaster ride, last September.
"The Coastal Commission said, "Look, figure out where the dump is and clean it up first,'" Venskus said. "So from my perspective, the same type of reasoning would have been applied by the commission had it had the information when they approved the ride permit." She added that it was a public-interest group, and not SeaWorld, that released the 2002 soils study.
In a prepared statement, a SeaWorld spokesman said, "We find this petition without merit," adding that the theme park "has, in good faith, cooperated and participated fully in the process."
A recent visit to the "Journey to Atlantis" construction site found a whirlwind of activity. Construction crews, wearing nothing to protect against potential gas leaks, were buzzing around the site, working feverishly to complete the project.
The three steel-framed towers are hard to miss from any vantage point around Mission Bay Park. Reminiscent more of a launch pad at Florida's Kennedy Space Center than part of SeaWorld's plan to remain competitive in the cut-throat theme-park world, the looming metal skeleton of what will become, in essence, a nine-story building dominates the landscape.
Deborah Lee, deputy director of the Coastal Commission's San Diego district office, said SeaWorld has been notified of the revocation request in a letter "telling them that if they continue to work, it's at their own risk."
Lee said such requests to revoke a permit can only be rejected if the request is found to be "patently frivolous and without merit," according to state law. While such a finding is unlikely, Lee said, her office has not "reached a determination on what our recommendation will be."
"Our water-quality unit has looked at most of the material," she added. "They don't see anything that they think would constitute grounds for revocation yet. We're also still waiting for some information to come from the city on their analysis of some of the allegations. We're asking the city to give us their read on it."
Venskus said she's puzzled by that last statement, considering that it's the Coastal Commission-not the city-that holds jurisdiction over the project due to its coastal proximity.
"I have to say I'm disturbed that they need to check with the city," she said. "We've given them everything they need, and they don't need to check with the city. This is not about the city; it's actually about the applicant. And the applicant, just on its face if you look at their application-you can see that they purposely withheld information. And that's not a question for the city."
Councilmember Donna Frye, whose district includes SeaWorld, has been a vocal opponent of the thrill ride from day one. As head of a committee that is spearheading the study of the old landfill, Frye is emphatic about attempts to conceal information from the public.
She said that when she headed the opposition to Proposition D in 1998-the narrowly approved ballot measure that exempted SeaWorld from the city's coastal 30-foot-height limit-she recalled holding up a picture of the "Journey to Atlantis" ride that has been built at other SeaWorld parks.
"We called it, and [SeaWorld] denied it," Frye said of those plans. "So, the first reason that that ride shouldn't be built is because [SeaWorld] lied to the public in order to get the height exemption."
But now, she said, "Any information that would have helped the commissioners make an informed decision-and was withheld-about something that could pose a public health risk is absolutely a reason to at least revisit this. You can't withhold information."