Fire Foxes in the Hen House?

HB Fire Department overrules planners, residents on soil safety

Huntington Beach City Hall hopes the Pacific City project—a sweeping expanse of shops, a hotel and more than 500 luxury condominiums near PCH—will turn their town into one of Southern California's top-rated tourist destinations. But there are several problems with that lofty goal, not the least of which is this: the 31-acre site used to be an oil field—with 20 wells and a gas-distillation facility—run by Chevron Oil Co.

In Huntington Beach, already buzzing about the possible connection between the city's oil history and the recent eruption of rare cancers among kids, you might expect the Pacific City project to undergo rigorous scrutiny. You might also expect that the city wouldn't rely on consultants who work for Chevron to determine whether the soil is contaminated.

But you don't know Huntington like Bob Dingwall knows Huntington.

"Chevron has been the power behind the scenes in this town for so long the control and pressure they can bring to bear is just unbelievable," said Dingwall, a city planning commissioner.

The Pacific City property has been turned over a number of times since Chevron sold it to Shea Homes in 1996—Makar Properties bought the land in 2001—but through all those sales, Chevron remains responsible for cleanup. And that has many worried that Chevron will use its backroom connections at City Hall to fast-track the project, despite public protest.

The oil giant left the local oil business years ago, moving into real estate with the help of friends in the city's fire department, whose officials have check-off authority on all soil cleanup in the city. Twelve years ago, fire officials worked with Chevron to draft a city ordinance that relaxed laws governing soil contamination. The result: a new law that raised allowable soil contamination by 10 times because the previous limit was "unnecessarily restrictive." That single, deft legal move may have saved Chevron millions in cleanup costs.

Now, the fire department's unusually aggressive role in pushing the Pacific City project has some wondering if Chevron is at it again.

Last month, the Huntington Beach Planning Commission approved an environmental-impact report for the Pacific City project claiming that soil at the site had already been cleaned of toxic contamination left over from decades of oil drilling. But that conclusion was based on data that was several years old and supplied by Chevron itself.

When residents protested, the commission agreed to let a group of neighbors known as the Pacific City Action Coalition help fire officials choose a new consultant. Even Michael Gagnet, a senior vice president with Makar Properties, supported the second look at soil.

"There's been a lot of testimony tonight about doing the right thing," Gagnet told the commission at its April 13 meeting. "That's what we want to do: we want the site to be clean. I lost my father to cancer."

At first, fire officials presented the coalition with a shortlist of five consultants and told the group it had two weeks to choose a firm from that list. After performing a simple Internet search, the coalition discovered that the city's top choice for the job—GeoSyntec Consultants Inc.—listed Chevron as a major client. Another consultant on the list, Brycon LLC, is a partner in a real-estate project with another oil company, Aztec Energy Co.

On April 13, the coalition laid out their findings and urged planning commissioners to hire a "truly independent" consultant. They were joined by John Ott and Cheri-Jan Olson, two parents whose children died of brain stem glioma, a rare brain tumor they believe may have been caused by soil contamination in their city (see "Bitter Harvest," March 26). During the meeting, Ott, Olson and several coalition activists made their point by silently holding placards that read, "Don't Sacrifice Children's Lives for the Sake of Development."

Perhaps stirred by the spectacle, the commission voted to give the coalition another two weeks to choose a firm from the fire department's list. But the day after the meeting, on April 14, Huntington Beach Fire Chief Duane Olson sent an e-mail to commissioners asserting that his agency wasn't going to honor that agreement. Olson blamed the coalition, declaring that residents had "declined" to hire their own soil consultant on the project and had failed to stick to the fire department's timeline. His department was going to choose the consultant without any advice from the coalition, he said.

"From a list of five firms, GeoSyntec will be reviewed first and evaluated for selection," Olson wrote. "If it cannot meet the fire department's scope of work and code standards for cleanup, then the other four engineering firms will be interviewed as well. In previous meetings, the Pacific coalition group was given the option to hire its own environmental firm, which they have declined to do, and they were also given an opportunity to select one of the five firms on the city's list of consideration, but they have not complied with the timeline."

Why the rush? Olson failed to respond to a request for an interview by press time. But Councilwoman Debbie Cook, who appointed the planning commission's chairman, says the city has done everything possible to include the Pacific City Action Coalition in the project. "It is unprecedented to let a community group choose from a list of consultants," she said. "But the offer was made and the group was told when the deadline was. They didn't act in time."

However, the fire chief's swift rebuke comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the fire department's history of working with oil companies.

"It appears that at least two of these consultants have conflicts of interest and shouldn't be included in this process," Dingwall said. "It's akin to having the fox guarding the henhouse and in my view it's not the right way to handle it."

"We're not trying to stop this project," said John Sisker, who co-founded the coalition. "We just want to make sure the soil is clean.

"This is not simply going back on the city's word to the coalition; it's a major defeat to the entire community and the safety of our children. What are they trying to hide?"

Visit the Pacific City Action Coalition website at pacificcityactioncoalition.info.
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