Fear and loathing in Mira Mesa

A classic confrontation between Citizens and Business provides a perfect example of how not to enter a community.

by John Lyons
n a crowded Mira Mesa high school gymnasium, an elated crowd stands applauding. They had just convinced their town planning group to make the approval of a $4 million industrial facility contingent on the outcome of a comprehensive environmental study.
For residents opposed to the project, it was a triumph of community, a grass-roots environmental success over a large corporation. To TPS Technologies, the international soil remediation concern that wants to go into business in Mira Mesa, it was a vote for ignorance, a green witch-hunt.
Most significantly, it was an example of the complex nature of environmental issues in the 90s. With scientific data becoming as suspect as it is malleable, with debate blurred by green rhetoric, the only common thread in Mira Mesa was suspicion.

A slow burn

The source of the citizens elation was the planners' decision to require an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the TPS project. According to residents, the EIR would comprehensively review a broad range of environmental effects of the facility. Normally, an EIR is only required if the city sees a need for further review. One was not required of TPS because the city found that the project "would not pose a significant environmental impact," according to Mary Roush of the City Planning Commission.
The focus of the debate is TPS's proposed construction of a thermal desorber plant in Carrol Canyon, less than a mile from the citizens' homes and businesses. The purpose of the desorber is to remove pollution from contaminated soil. Desorption is similar to incineration: the soil is exposed to temperatures of up to 800 degrees. While eliminating the contamination, this process releases some contaminants into the air, including bitterly disputed amounts of lead, benzene and other particulate matter.
TPS originally approached the Mira Mesa Planning Group in May. They pointed out that thermal desorption was an EPA-approved method for cleaning contaminated soil. Moreover, there was much soil to be cleaned: TPS brought with them an area map showing more than 2,000 gas stations and other sites where soil had been contaminated by petroleum leaking from underground storage tanks.

To EIR is human

Nevertheless, community concerns and feelings of mistrust toward TPS prompted the planners to make a special request that the city require an EIR from TPS. The request is not binding on city officials, and in reality may not answer many of their questions.
Officials from TPS bristled at the idea of conducting what they characterized as a needless and expensive report, having already received approval from the city's environmental auditors. But the company's public resistance to the study was interpreted as evidence that they may have been hiding something, and the resistance itself became justification for the EIR. The EIR could potentially cost TPS $60,000 and take several months to complete.
At issue is a complex trade-off: the potential consequences of soil contamination vs. the unknown risks of pollution from the plant itself. But it is a trade-off some environmentalists can live with: left alone, the contaminated soil can eventually contaminate the water supply and may pose other health risks. "If you want to be able to drive your car, you have to be willing to put up with someone coming in to clean up the mess," said Mitch Lizar, a member of the Mira Mesa Planning Group.

Raising the red flag

TPS originally received the planning group's approval and proceeded to seek and receive further approval from the local water and air quality authorities.
Mira Mesa resident Mark Kornheiser, however, discovered the proposal while browsing legal notices published in tiny print in the back pages of the San Diego Daily Transcript. Curious about the thermal desorper that would potentially become his neighbor, he began to investigate.
In the past few months, I have come to know Mr. Kornheiser, and his powers of investigation are tremendous. He is a corporate nightmare: a tenacious researcher, clearly worried about the project, who has made every aspect of the business of thermal desorption public. Kornheiser began canvassing Mira Mesa with the facts about desorption: daily releases of 95 lbs. of NOx, 69 lbs. of SOx and 1 lb. of lead. They were all numbers that had been deemed safe by the city, but they were numbers nonetheless that elicited a response: not in my back yard.
Soon, the scope of his research included all of Mira Mesa, which he was predicting could be the next 'Love Canal.' He had become aware of several other industrial plants emitting hazardous materials, and he began to see TPS as the final straw, tipping Mira Mesa towards an industrial waste land. "We need to know if this is going to put us over the edge," he said.

Let them eat lead

TPS' regional sales manager Don Johnson responded to resident's concerns by stating, "They knew it was an industrial area when they bought." TPS was visibly frustrated and claimed in a press release that they were being unjustifiably attacked. But it was their attitude that ultimately became their greatest enemy.
Kornheiser was collecting and distributing information at such a rate that soon more than 2,000 Mira Mesans had signed a petition demanding that an EIR be performed. He had damaging scientific data from a myriad of credible sources - most of it equally disputable by sources as equally credible.
More disconcerting, his group uncovered evidence that TPS may have been attempting to restrict or suppress information concerning its present activities. Specifically, a similar thermal desorber operates in Adelanto, a small town east of Los Angeles in the Mojave desert.
When Mira Mesa attorney William MacKersie wrote TPS asking for analytical data on the soil treated at the Adelanto site, he was politely refused. TPS manager Blair Dominiak wrote on September 23 that he was not authorized by his clients to divulge such information. In the letter, however, he referred MacKersie to the Regional Water Quality Control Board where the data is kept in public quarterly reports. "I'm sure that they will be happy to answer any questions that you may have," he writes.
But they wondered just how happy. Kornheiser discovered an April 8 letter on file with the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Victorville in which TPS had asked the board to "consider treating past and future quarterly reports as confidential in nature and not allow public access of them." The letter was signed by George Catalano, TPS' vice president of operations, with a carbon copy to Blair Dominiak.
"The more I look, the more I find that this is just an ugly business," Kornheiser said.

Playing a new tune

For their part, TPS reacted to the growing local opposition by hiring a PR firm, Katz & Associates. The business that George Catalano casually called "dirt burning" was now touted as "soil recycling," and flyers distributed at community meetings suggested that effects of desorption would be no worse than the effects of residential lawn-mowers and cars.
"The community is asking a lot of good questions," said TPS regional sales manager Don Johnson, "What they don't see is that we have a lot of good answers."
Kornheiser's reaction: a long sardonic "C'mon." Residents were, needless to say, incredulous. TPS had the support of city health experts, but was unable to relate that fact without patronizing and even insulting some Mira Mesans. Kornheiser, ever skeptical, pressed on. He continued writing letters to environmental groups and even the President of the United States.
Under mounting pressure, TPS added to its PR retinue, hiring Team Environmental Services, an engineering and consulting firm in San Marcos. Their job was to perform noise and health risk impact studies, which could be used to assuage community fears. The studies, however, did little more than add to community suspicions that TPS was dealing from the bottom of the deck.
Inexplicably, the studies performed by Team were based on assumptions significantly different from those officially filed with the city. For example, although TPS is seeking a permit to create a constant 70 decibel noise during operation, Team studied the possible effects of a constant 60 decibel noise. Such trimming was applied to studies done on emissions more harmful than noise as well: lead, particulate matter and carbon dioxide.
The appearance of impropriety - at least - was hard to miss. Kornheiser's group, now called Concerned Citizens, uncovered these discrepancies and presented them to the public, turning sentiment further against TPS.

Property and propriety

Attempted damage control by TPS led to a series of informational open houses during which they and their PR firm attempted to sway the sentiments of local residents. But by then it was too late. Rumors were already circulating that local property values were plunging. Even during the TPS open house meetings, people were whispering about homeowners allegedly being rejected for refinancing and bids on houses being retracted.
But TPS officials found it easy to fall into the callous stereotype of the cold, unmoving industrial giant. "I'll tell you one thing, and I hope you print this," said Johnson, "If property values fall, its their own fault."
Indeed, local realtors had become wary. Whether justified or not, the community's visible concerns about the safety of the desorber could have a real effect on the real estate market. In late September, Debbie Sowden, a Coldwell Banker realtor, wrote to the Air Pollution Control Board that "unfortunately, perception becomes reality. If the buying public becomes convinced that this facility represents a health threat ... declining property values will ensue."

So, what's new?

And so, in a crowded gymnasium in Mira Mesa, a crowd of residents convinced their town planners to request that the city force an environmental impact report from TPS. Ironically, the same residents who were not comfortable with the city's initial finding for the project were now jubilant about the city's further environmental review. But the city will apply the same standards to the EIR that it applied when it initially found the project to be safe. "Let's just say the city agrees with the planning group and calls for the EIR ... 100-1 that it comes back clean. Then what?" asked Lizar.
And the EIR itself, which had become in the eyes of many Mira Mesans a catch-all for industrial probity, may be less comprehensive than the residents expect. "I've worked with many of these documents, and most of them are quite flimsy. I don't think it'll tell us anything new," said Jeff Stevens, chair of the planning group.
"What people don't understand is that the EIR is going to be the same thing as we already have. We're just going to have to hire Team again, and they're going to go out to do the same things they already did, and we'll be right back at square one," said TPS' Johnson.
I asked Johnson if he thought an EIR ought to be done out of respect for the concerns of the community where his company was proposing to build. His response - "why should we be responsible for that," - is indicative of the way industry can so easily make itself an adversary of a community. One would think, in the wake of all the environmental disasters and ensuing litigation of the 70s and 80s, industrial America would have come up with some way to better relate to the townspeople of America.
Of all the evidence collected in opposition of the TPS facility, the most damning was the assertion that TPS was hiding the truth. Even though they had the approval of city health authorities, TPS never shook local fears that the company was "talking out the side of its mouth," as one resident put it. In fact, TPS seemed to do everything in their power to confirm it - a confirmation that in effect gave credence to fears that the plant itself was unsafe.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of an end to the adversarial postures of big business and small communities. In Mira Mesa, George Catalano stands in the night air outside the gymnasium where local planners have just voted to request an EIR. "This doesn't change things at all," he said, "The planning group is just an advisory group ... and no matter what, we're going to build."

John Lyons is the co-editor of the Mira Mesa Sorrento Times. Readers interested in communication with the Mira Mesa Community Planning Group may call Jeff Stevens at 566-2261.