Letter: Sweetwater Car Wash site project raises questions

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I am writing about a concerning issue uncovered at the Sweetwater car wash site. It seems the project architect and involved city development staff have been dishonest with the public regarding the contamination of the site for the past five years.

This project has been reviewed by the Planning Commission four times. Each time, residents expressed their deep concerns about contamination at this former gas station, only to receive reassurances from the architect and staff that all contamination had been remediated. Each staff report stated, “Soil contamination related to the underground gasoline storage tanks was remediated.”

I recently discovered the remediation report that staff and the architect have been referencing on the city website. According to the report, the site only underwent a partial remediation due to the current site use – a car wash with no plans to disturb the soil. The report states that 23 cubic yards of contaminated soil, 180 gallons of gasoline, 2 gallons of benzene, MTMB, and six other contaminants were left in the soil and groundwater. I was also surprised to learn that the soil under the 80-year-old building containing hydro lifts was never tested or remediated.

The Planning Commission reviewed the project again on June 7. The staff report did not mention the word contamination. Staff stated the project qualifies for a CEQA categorical exemption.

At the meeting, residents submitted the report exposing site contamination. A CEQA attorney stated that this is a toxic site, therefore, would not qualify for a CEQA categorical exemption and would instead require a CEQA initial study.

The commissioners disregarded this information and approved the project with a CEQA categorical exemption.

The repeated assurances that the contamination was remediated/abated raise serious questions about the reliability of information provided by this architect and staff. We urge the local authorities to thoroughly investigate this matter and hold those responsible accountable for their actions. We must establish strict regulations and procedures moving forward.

As community members, we trust the city and its officials to prioritize our safety and well-being. Unfortunately, this trust has been shattered as we have discovered the true nature of the site’s contamination. This revelation has left us feeling betrayed and has significantly eroded our faith in those responsible for overseeing such projects.

Christy Miller, Laguna Beach

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Sadly, betrayal and questions of trust have become the risky rule, not the exception with our Department of Community Development. These points of evidence on Sweetwater that Christy Miller points out are frightening and a threat to our environment and the lives of those that may work on this project, or live near it.

    After an 18 month delay in CEQA training our city finally completed training in August. Quality of the training was poor. It was the narrative of a flow chart. No sense of why CEQA matters, or what standards of evidence mean. The consultant could not explain when exceptions to the exemptions apply. The biggest advice to commissioners/board members: trust staff.

    Marc Weiner kept jumping in with his nonsense, including factually incorrect things. Misquoting CEQA code on the fly. Marc does not know how exceptions apply, and he ignores them and the state law as administered by the State Attorney Generals Office.

    And lastly, if staff got the same basic intro, what does that tell us about their qualifications to make decisions about the level of review needed on this, or any other project in Laguna Beach.

    Tony Fisch represents MOM LLC public relations – Ed.

  2. I wrote a LTE about the conversion of this site 2.5 years ago which the LB Indy published:
    “1890 S. Coast Highway Mixed Use Project” published on April 30, 2021.
    Indy readers should educate themselves, we’re not being served well by our staff or Planning Commission.
    Both Ms. Miller and Mr. Fisch are in my estimation 100% correct.
    I’m a professional enviro-analyst, looked at the same database as Ms. Miller.
    I contacted the SD Regional Water Quality Control Board myself, because Retail Gas Outlet (RGO) remediation MUST be thorough to ensure regulatory compliance regarding groundwater contamination.
    It’s not that far to the ocean, and after so much time, toxic contaminants might in fact have already been transported that far in a subterranean “drip feed.”
    Or bulged out of sight into adjacent parcels, who’ll get sticker shock when they realize they are stuck with remediating.
    The proposed site in dispute should have at least gotten a cursory CEQA analysis, and the complete remediation a listed, required concession/exaction, i.e., mitigation.
    The site should have been perforated at various depths in at least 25-30 places, captured the conditions over the general site footprint. At the developers expense, it’s the cost of doing business.
    Ditto for protecting air quality: If that required special control devices during excavation, that’s the developer’s problem.
    When unearthed during excavation, they can become airborne, migrate off-site.
    With the prevailing onshore air currents, those in the “shadow” could be affected.
    I know these are “maybes,” but that’s the point: The City doesn’t know either, so can’t guarantee a contained, sequestered site, ensure the health and safety of those within proposed construction zone. That includes not just neighbors but the workers or those who travel through that area.
    What Ms. Miller noted might seem minor to those not in proximity, but ask yourselves: If you lived near there, would you blindly trust a city that has failed to acquire and maintain credibility with regulatory agencies to be your protector?
    Our relationship with the Coastal Commission has been poor, going back for decades. They don’t trust us, I know, I’ve been involved in many hearings over the years.
    Remediation of RGOs is acknowledged to be necessary, and there are several sites here in town that to this day have not been converted or re-developed due to known soil contamination and possible migration because of the costs.
    Ms. Miller is NOT a Chicken Little, more like Cassandra: She’s done her homework, our staff needed only to write to the SDRWQCB staff as I did or pick up the phone and call them for crying out loud.
    Community Development “packages” these questionable projects, the Planning Commissioners rubber stamp their recommendations, and members of our community with legitimate concerns are forced to legally challenge sub-standard review, local lead agency oversight.
    These conscientious people are forced to spend enormous amounts of personal time and considerable money (hiring their own attorneys & consultants) to hold the city accountable.
    For this site, a few additional hours of staff time could have been fruitful, but the “de minimis” mindset at City Hall, including City Council, Planning Commission, etc. leads to mediocre product.
    We live in a beautiful place, since when is “only do what you have to, no more” acceptable?
    The Erin Brockavitch Test is a good metric: Would YOU allow this to happen next door to you and your family?
    Responsible development SHOULD be costly if someone wants to profit from us. If they can’t preemptively perform cost/risk benefit analyses, integrate that into their revenue model, protect us and their investment, then maybe somewhere else is a better fit.

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