Fear and loathing in Mira Mesa
by John Lyons
A classic confrontation between Citizens and Business provides a perfect
example of how not to enter a community.
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
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
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
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,"
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,"
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
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
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.