Toxic Sediment in San Diego Bay

cleanup san diego baySan Diego Bay looks beautiful, but under the sparkling water, there’s a toxic secret.

The bay’s sediment, the ground underneath the water, poses a serious public health threat, and causes ongoing contamination of aquatic wildlife and organisms. A 1996 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study examined the health of 18 inland waterways and identified the bay, which was once a calving lagoon for the California Gray Whale, as the second most toxic bay in the nation.

According to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, more than thirty locations in San Diego Bay suffer from unhealthy water, ground beneath that water or both. A federal list that identifies unhealthy waters, called the 303(d) list, includes San Diego Bay for 20 separate pollutants–including copper, mercury, PAHs, PCBs, zinc, and chlordane–along with general toxicity in the bottom of the bay and the harmful effects to plants and sea life that live there. These pollutants continue to find their way into San Diego Bay from urban runoff and copper-based paints on boats.

Due to the fish contamination from these pollutants, the Port of San Diego posted all piers along San Diego Bay with fish consumption advisories. Unfortunately, anglers – many who come from underserved populations– still catch and eat fish from the bay, resulting in serious human health risks.

One of the prominent sources of the bay’s pollution is the runoff from Chollas Creek, which is one of the most polluted waterbodies in San Diego County, making the Pueblo Watershed (of which Chollas Creek is the dominant waterbody) one of the region’s most damaged and unhealthy to reside within.

Much of the legacy pollution in the San Diego Bay comes from the shipyards and Navy facilities that line the eastern shore of the bay. In 2003, Coastkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council successfully sued Southwest Marine (now BAE), the Navy’s largest ship repair and maintenance facility on the West Coast, on charges that it failed to implement required measures to prevent toxins from flowing into San Diego Bay. This case reached its conclusion when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the shipyard’s final appeal. Southwest Marine had challenged the September 1999 U.S. District Court ruling, later upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, which required the shipyard to improve their stormwater pollution prevention practices and found the company liable for $799,000 due to recurring permit violations.

Coastkeeper now works with environmental and community partners to achieve a San Diego Bay cleanup of contaminated sediment and waters located within and adjacent to BAE Systems San Diego Ship Repair and National Steel and Shipbuilding Company leaseholds, approximately 60 acres, just south of the Coronado Bridge.