Why SeaWorld Can’t Build a Hotel at its Location on Mission Bay

by on November 24, 2015 · 19 comments

in Culture, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Mission Bay Landfill map ed2bBy Frank Gormlie

Coming off its trouncing over the last 2 years because of the Orca circuses, SeaWorld has announced that it now plans on building a hotel and resort at its location on the southern rim of Mission Bay.  Its hope is that declining attendances and revenues will be halted with a branded hotel right there on its site with its aquatic theme.

Yet, there is trouble afoot for these plans. SeaWorld needs to re-appraise the project, for the last time a major hotel was planned for that area of Mission Bay – it ended in disaster. In the early 1980s, Ramada wanted to build a resort – and the city had given the go-ahead.

But when it came time to begin construction, it was uncovered that a toxic landfill sat beneath all that sand. The old Mission Bay Landfill.

In turns out, that back in the early Eighties, the City of San Diego had entirely forgotten about the history of that section of Mission Bay. It turns out, the City ran an domestic and industrial landfill from 1952 through 1959 right there on the southern edge of Mission Bay, the largest aquatic park on the West Coast.

The City, the Navy, and the aerospace industry all poured their waste  or dumped barrels of toxins into unlined sand pits at the site, located between what’s now I-5, south to the San Diego River, north to the water of the Bay, and west into land now occupied by parking lots and … SeaWorld.

This is why SeaWorld cannot build a 3 story hotel and resort, as it wants to, next to Perez Cove. There’s an old toxic landfill within yards away. Any 3 story building, I am told by an engineer, would require at least one story underground and steel beams driven into the sandy soil down 30 feet. This excavation into what’s below could very well disturb toxic gases and who knows what else.

What are we talking about?

In a seminal broadside15 years ago about the old, toxic landfill, the San Diego Reader described:

Between July 1952 and December 1959, the City of San Diego operated a landfill in Mission Bay Park between Sea World and Interstate 5. For ten hours a day, seven days a week, city trucks hauled garbage to the 115-acre site — the sort of refuse you can see being dumped into the Miramar landfill.

But during its operation, the Mission Bay landfill served as receiving grounds for millions of gallons of industrial wastes being produced by San Diego’s aerospace industry. In some cases, these toxic substances were buried in steel drums. Other times they were poured into unlined holes 15 to 20 feet deep, below the level of the groundwater.

It is not possible to list the hazardous substances the city allowed to be dumped there. No cleanup of the Mission Bay landfill has been conducted. If anyone kept records of what substances companies were discarding there, the files have disappeared. After the permanent closure of the landfill in 1959, the memory of the toxic dumping seemed to vanish.

The Reader continues on the planned hotel development in 1983:

The city was concentrating on development on the Mission Bay site of what was to be one of the biggest hotels in San Diego County. Known as the Ramada Renaissance Resort, the project was to include 638 rooms, tennis courts, swimming pools, racquetball courts, restaurants, and banquet rooms. …

One week before Ramada was due to sign the lease, a news announcement brought development plans to a halt. On July 20, 1983, a local television station reported the revelations of an anonymous source who claimed to have been a truck driver during the 1950s. According to subsequent newspaper reports, the source said he had dumped hundreds of barrels of the carcinogen carbon tetrachloride at the Mission Bay landfill.

This wasn’t the first time someone had linked carbon tetrachloride to the old dump. … With the televised report of the truck driver’s allegations, pandemonium erupted. Ramada announced that construction plans would be put on hold until the hotel chain could be convinced that the property was safe.

Mission Bay Landfill goodmap

Approximate boundaries of the Mission Bay Landfill.

The Ramada resort was never built – as you may know. But city officials weren’t ready to give up. They wanted to salvage the hotel-development project – as the City was to receive a predicted million dollars a year from the resort. So, a study was conducted to determine whether hazardous materials were present at or near the landfill, and what their concentrations were.

In August and September of 1983, the firm selected began collecting samples of groundwater from 20 wells drilled on and near the landfill site. In addition, “cover soil, landfill material, and underlying alluvium extracted from 21 boring sites” were scrutinized, and gases from 10 wells  examined.

At the same time, the study uncovered old files and documents – also buried within the depths of the City’s bureaucracy – that indicated that toxic waste were dumped into the Mission Bay landfill in the 1950s by –

“four companies (Convair, Ryan, Rohr, and Astronautics) each year were generating 792,000 gallons of chromic, hydrofluoric, nitric, sulfuric, and hydrochloric acids; dichromate; cyanide; and paint and oil wastes.”

The study concluded, in the report generated – as per the Reader:

Magnetic and electromagnetic surveys revealed that the site harbored perhaps 5000 pounds of metal per acre, most of it at or below the water table. This confirmed old eyewitness accounts that metal barrels of industrial wastes had been buried there. “At those depths [15 to 20 feet below the surface] most metallic drums or barrels should corrode to release their contents in less than ten years,” the report said.

… subsequent chemical analyses found more than 60 Environmental Protection Agency “priority pollutants” on the property, including 12 heavy metals (elements such as mercury and arsenic), 38 organic compounds such as acetone and carbon tetrachloride, and 12 pesticides.

Despite their findings, the consultant reassured the city that the Ramada resort development could proceed, but even so, they warned:

Semiannual testing of the bay and flood-control-channel waters adjacent to the landfill should continue “for an indefinite period,” they recommended, and they warned that if development proceeded, landfill gases might be released.

Yet, Ramada did not go forth. And nothing happened to the site for the next five years, as another session of collective amnesia set in.

No clean-up of the site occurred, but what did occur were plans by the City in 1988 to develop “South Shores Park” – a $4.5 million plan that included excavating nine-acres for a cove just north of the landfill.

The plans also included a boat-launching basin, a 16-acre parking lot, restroom facilities, boarding docks, and a public beach on the east side of the man-made cove. An engineer of the Regional Water Quality Control Board raised eyebrows about the development, however, when he cautioned in June of 1987, that the excavation might “result in the disruption of the landfill cover and/or involve excavation and exposure of landfill waste materials.”

Grading began on the site. About a month later – early October 1988 – workers digging the excavation for the cove smelled rotten eggs, started vomiting, and then suffered headaches. Three of the workers had to be  hospitalized – and one eventually died – (his exposure had acerbated an existing condition). His widow filed a wrongful-death suit, and settled with the City for $8500. An environmental consultant concluded that workers had encountered a pocket of hydrogen sulfide gas, and recommended that they be required to wear oxygen masks.

The Reader described additional muddied waters:

More trouble developed. This time it took the form of a reddish-orange seepage that appeared in the side wall of a ground cut at the level of the former water table. A field technician employed by the consulting firm collected liquid and soil samples. The results revealed elevated levels of pollutants: dichloroethene, a degreasing agent; tca, a common industrial solvent; and carbon tetrachloride, … found in a concentration more than 900 times the state’s maximum for drinking water.

South Shores Park was eventually built – but 6 years after schedule.

Seaworld OBGO demo 4-29-01

Demonstration against toxic dump by OBGO, April 29, 2001.

In the summer of 2000, the Reader article was published. And a brand new, local Ocean Beach activist network, called OB Grassroots Organization (OBGO), took up the banner of bringing the issue of the toxic waste dump to the public and to City officials.  These OBceans complained of not knowing what was seeping and leaking out of the old landfill and flowing down the San Diego River to Dog Beach and Ocean Beach.

OBGO began a public education campaign about the dump – handing out fliers, giving presentations, and collecting signatures on petitions calling for a study.  In 2001 OBGO held a large rally and march from OB to the landfill site and back.

The grassroots pressure paid off. Then-Councilwoman Donna Frye announced in 2002 that she was forming a research effort to determine whether the old landfill was leaking toxic gases or chemicals into the sand or water and was able to convince her colleagues to fund a $500,000 study.

Frye created the Mission Bay Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) – which this author was a member of – to act as an oversight committee made up of technical experts and community members, to assist the City Environmental Services Department and her office in overseeing the investigation into possible toxins.  SCS Engineers were hired to complete the assessment report.

After a year long study, the consultants concluded that the current landfill site – left undisturbed – posed little environmental threats – but that the old site should be monitored and treated with caution. It concluded that the landfill does not discharge significant contamination into Mission Bay, and that there is little evidence of persistent pollution from industrial waste, and no landfill gases were detected at the surface.

Donna Frye said then:

“We asked what were the approximate limits of the landfill and we asked whether or not it was any kind of a significant health risk, particularly to the public, and the answer came back, “No,'” Frye said. “It is not currently a health risk. Could that change? Absolutely, and that is what we want to really keep our eye on.”

The report did find that parts of the eastern area of the old landfill were very thin, increasing chances of future discharges of gases up to the top, that passersby or construction workers might be endangered if there was any major digging at the site. It proposed dumping soil over the thin spots.  The report stated:

“The possibility (remains) that some contaminants . . . in unevaluated locations or . . . still contained in steel drums may be released.”

In sum, this is why SeaWorld can’t build a hotel at its location.  It is true that the western boundary of the old landfill is uncertain; SeaWorld engineers can argue that the aquatic-themed park or Perez Cove were never within the dump. But it’s a close call.

Too close for comfort.


Please see “Something Stinks in Mission Bay” by Jeannette DeWyze, July 20, 2000 – San Diego Reader

Retired Mission Bay landfill investigated for hazards
by Lori Martinez sdnews.com

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

OB Dude November 24, 2015 at 4:13 pm

And the beat goes on!

Great article Frank!


bodysurferbob November 24, 2015 at 9:02 pm

any talk about water will draw me into it. yea, i recall obgo and the stuff about the toxic dump, the rally over near the place of the former landfill.

good for obgo for being so on top of things in those days. what ever happened ot the group?


Old Hippie November 24, 2015 at 9:30 pm

You’ve done it now. You’ll really piss off some high officials and corporate risk-takers with this article. Or will you? Probably fly right by them. Who reads this stuff anyhow?


concerned cit November 24, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Disturbing report. Poor Seaworld, looks like it’s getting itself painted into a corner. Phase out the Orcas, build a resort – but wait, a toxic waste landfill just feet below. Poor, poor Seaworld, it just can’t win. Put its enlarged orca tanks on hold, changed CEOs, suit against the Coastal Commission is moot now. Poor poor seaworld.


obvance November 25, 2015 at 12:12 am

I am curious about one piece of land adjacent to Seaworld. In the good old reliable UT was a story once about Seaworld wanting to use part of the “parkland” next to its existing parking lot for overflow parking on big days. It promised that the rest of the time it would be for public use. Soon after, the lot was paved over and fenced in and that is when Seaworld started charging for parking. I could be wrong but I felt at the time this land (toxic perhaps) was stolen from the city. Anyone else remember this?


Judy Swink November 25, 2015 at 12:44 pm

As part of the Mission Bay Park Master Plan, 16.5 acres adjacent to the then east boundary of Sea World was designated for possible leasehold use. The 16.5 acres were far from ideal for most commercial interests except for Sea World which had begun the process by asking for 30 acres and making the “offer” you recall. The “offer” involved use off-season as youth soccer fields but the use was rejected as not being aquatic-oriented, one of the principles underlying criteria for use of Mission Bay parkland for commercial purposes.

Most of that 16.5 acres, now leased to SW, is used for overflow parking. The Master Plan and the Local Coastal Program approved by the Coastal Commission, limit how much of the acreage can be parking (don’t recall the specifics without looking into old files). I believe the Splash Down Ride (Journey to Atlantis Not-a-Roller-Coaster) is on the northern part of the parcel.

I’m pretty sure that Sea World was charging for parking before the early 1990s, when the Master Plan was developed & approved. Perhaps someone else has a different memory than I do on this.


Rufus November 25, 2015 at 7:57 am

The idea that this site should be left as is, is criminal. How much crap is leaching into Mission Bay? Jet skiiers and water skiiers who use the cove, you should be very very concerned.

It should be cleaned up properly and legally.


Judy Swink November 25, 2015 at 1:17 pm

It doesn’t need to be “cleaned up” despite Frank’s continued insistence that it’s a toxic dump. It’s not. There are limits on how it can be used but it’s not useless. Part has been developed with the parking lots & boat ramp plus a 50′ wide shoreline promenade from SW to Fiesta Island Road, built by Sea World as mitigation to closing the shoreline to the public along their leasehold. The rest of the area, east of the parking lots/boat ramp will eventually be developed as “free and open parkland”.

See a separate comment I’ll be posting for more detail on the non-toxic reality of the Mission Bay Landfill.


jettyboy November 25, 2015 at 9:21 am

I might be a bit cynical, but I’m betting corporate interests will be able to fool the citizens again, and this will get done. I hope I’m wrong, but time will tell.


Micporte November 25, 2015 at 11:54 am

Insightful commentary, Mr. Gormlie, and worth noticing Sea World, (and KPBS) A hotel will not solve the the economic problems/ environment/etc. of the operations of an entertainment zone in an essential environmental zone… As we are sinking, and right now , high tide,full moon, is a good time to check the reality of our coastline…
Anyone who accepts the idea of development in this bay/marsh zone is a traitor to the future.


Wireless Mike November 25, 2015 at 2:07 pm

I remember when I was a kid going with my dad in the car to take trash to that dump. The access road was alongside the flood channel where the bike road is now. There was no Sea World, no Sea World Drive, just sand and the city dump.

As sections of that old dump sink, sections of Sea World Drive sink with it, causing ripples in the pavement and the familiar “bouncy” drive. The land is unstable. Before it was a dump, it was a sandy wetland and originally part of the San Diego River delta. It is prone to liquefaction in an earthquake. Any substantial building would have to be anchored to bedrock for solid support. But I suspect that won’t stop developers who are used to getting their way.


Judy Swink November 25, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Where to start….? First, Perez Cove is where Hubbs Sea World is presently located, adjacent to Ingraham St., and where Sea World has planned to build a hotel. The Hubbs area is between .65 & .74 miles from the western boundary of the Mission Bay Landfill, depending on which end of the north-south area by Perez Cove you measure from, and well west of the main Sea World facility. The landfill does extend partway under the “overflow” parking area at the east edge of the SW leasehold, again almost the full width of the Sea World leasehold from Perez Cove. The measurement from there to Hubbs was done using Google Earth.

On to the landfill question and how toxic is it, really?

Beginning in 2003, I participated on a Technical Advisory Committee along with a number of other individuals from San Diego communities. The TAC developed a work program then interviewed firms specializing in landfill environmental assessments, to do a thorough study of the Mission Bay Landfill. The TAC selected a nationally respected firm, SCS Engineers. Funding came from the City’s Environmental Services Division, thanks to by Donna Frye.

The report issued by SCS in Sept. 2006, reviewed for comment & correction by numerous regional, state and federal agencies, concluded that the Mission Bay landfill is not a “toxic landfill” in the sense that author strongly suggests.

The “Ramada Inn” site, where the landfill cap was determined to be too shallow, can be rectified by adding more dirt. But the primary reason Ramada relinquished the option to lease is because the landfill in that area is still settling, as is true for the rest of the landfill area. You can feel the results of that on the current Sea World Drive which has developed a few ups and downs through the area, and is the reason that the older Sea World Drive was abandoned & the current one was built.

In a deep (literally as well as figuratively) investigation of the landfill, SCS concluded that there probably were some industrial chemicals discarded into the landfill but not in great quantity, that the many samples taken from varying depths of the landfill did not evidence a notable presence of the kinds of Chemicals of Potential Concern (COPCs) that would classify the landfill as toxic. Much of the industrial material discarded by the aerospace industry & others during that era were actually buried on their own properties, documented by records found by SCS. If the aerospace industry and others “poured [200,000 gallons of] their toxic chemicals into the landfill”, surely that quantity would have shown up in one of the many sampling wells drilled by SCS.

The report’s conclusion was that there were two substances that, under specific circumstances, could pose a threat to the public: methane, arsenic and hydrogen sulfide. Methane is continuously discharging from wells drilled for that purpose, and hydrogen sufide is sequestered well below the surface and a threat only if excavated. Many of us recall when the South Shores boat ramp was being built and workers hit one of those pockets, sending a worker to the hospital (no, he did not die despite rumors to the contrary). Arsenic also was identified as a health risk but, as with the hydrogen sulfide, risk was limited to construction workers. Otherwise, arsenic levels above the landfill and in the landfill cap are consistent with natural levels in the soil elsewhere in San Diego.


Marc Snelling November 26, 2015 at 10:12 am

That’s not a rumor. Eight workers were exposed to methane gas, one died three weeks after being hospitalized from the gas exposure. The City paid his widow $10,000 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. This has been reported by the UT, Reader, etc

This report said the pollutants in the landfill should be left undisturbed, are not adequately capped (in the east end in particular), and that the soil in the area has arsenic levels above human health guidelines. It may not be another Love Canal but it isn’t a good spot for a foundation or a vegetable garden,.

This area is so porous these pollutants could have easily migrated and diluted over time. This study may have shown that Aerospace and Defense companies dumped toxic waste on their own properties instead of Mission Bay Landfill in particular, but many of these are nearby and close to the water’s edge as well. At the end of the day San Diego still has a huge water pollution problem.

How many fish a month would you eat from Mission Bay? How about San Diego Bay?

There are bigger cities that have been around much longer, but San Diego Bay is already listed as the second most polluted bay in the country. San Diego also makes top ten lists for worst drinking water quality and worst ozone air pollution (smog) in the US.

The lack of oversight surrounding the Mission Bay Landfill is part of what created this problem, and the need for a TAC to investigate in the first place.


Judy Swink November 25, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Moving on to other substances of great concern, here are a couple of extracts from the report itself:

“SOLVENTS, THALLIUM & CHROMIC WASTES… The general consensus… was that the most potential problematic wastes placed in the landfill were chlorinated solvents and chromium…. review of historical documentation indicated that the majority of wastes described in these documents are primarily acids of various kinds….There is only one reference to “combustible cleaning solvents (from dry cleaners). Therefore, it is possible that the quantity of solvents placed in the landfill is not as great as has been discussed… There is no evidence of highly elevated concentrations of chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethene or tetrachloroethene remaining in the landfill. If documentation is incorrect and large quantities of these wastes were placed in the landfill, they likely have decomposed or degraded over time, which would be expected in such an anaerobic, methanogenic environment…….”

Our review of previous thallium data [from earlier studies] in surface water, groundwater and sediment samples revealed a clear pattern of concentrations… within a sampling event, but not between sampling events, during the mid-1980s and again in 1996. …. Laboratory results for thallium in the current study showed no detectable concentrations of thallium in samples of surface or subsurface soils or sediments, and a maximum concentration of thallium in groundwater that is lower than the public health goal.”

“Further, hexavalent chromium is not chemically stable under the geochemical conditions found in the landfill, which explains why it was not reported in groundwater samples, and was detected at very low concentrations in a few of the soil samples analyzed.”

SOURCE: “Report on Environmental Site Assessment of the Mission Bay Landfill, San Diego, California” SCS Engineers, September 2006.


Frank Gormlie November 26, 2015 at 8:38 am

I was on the same TAC that Judy Swink was on. I stand by this article and did state:

“After a year long study, the consultants concluded that the current landfill site – left undisturbed – posed little environmental threats – but that the old site should be monitored and treated with caution.”


Not Forgetful November 25, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Let’s not forget the toxic sludge processing plant on Fiesta Island that was closed 20 years ago. It’s a reminder that all sort of sins are buried in the sand around Mission Bay and are best left undisturbed.


Rufus November 26, 2015 at 5:07 am

Hey Judy, would you be willing to build a house on that site, raise children there, and perhaps plant a garden whose vegetables you would eat?

Your ad hominemh defense of an unlined dump next to Mission Bay that contains toxic chemicals is bizarre at best.


Judy Swink November 26, 2015 at 1:18 pm

No one would be allowed to build a house, much less raise children or garden vegetables on the landfill. Not the point. The point is – as Frank reminds us – that the landfill is not a public health hazard if left undisturbed. That means that only non-intrusive uses such as parkland can be implemented there. When that process begins, a first stage will be building up the earthen cap of the level of the landfill to a consistent depth before other work can be done, and passive parkland uses will be enabled on the remainder of South Shores.


CliffHanger November 28, 2015 at 8:15 am

The east end of Judy’s non-toxic dump site sure stinks of rotten eggs at the Tecolote Creek exit off I-5.


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