Toxic trouble in Playa del Rey An underground chemical plume near the Ballona Wetlands complicates an already controversial development slated for Culver Boulevard
By Gary Walker
A subterranean plume of potentially carcinogenic chemicals emanating from a former dry cleaner near the Ballona Wetlands could spread to surrounding commercial and residential areas if construction goes forward on what would be the largest building in Playa del Rey, according to an environmental study.
The proposed four-story Legado Del Mar development would include 72 apartments and 14,500 square feet of retail space on a triangular parcel of vacant land at 138 Culver Blvd., known locally as Jake’s Lot.
Just 540 feet northeast of Jake’s Lot at 310 Culver Blvd. is a building that once housed Del Rey Cleaners, which operated as a dry cleaner from 1962 to 2007 and has been identified as an ecological hazard site by the State Water Resources Control Board.
In order to provide up to 218 parking spaces for Legado Del Mar, construction plans call for a two-level garage that extends 23 feet underground — about 13 feet below the beachside community’s mean sea level, according to documents.
The excavation would require pumping groundwater out of the site, which one scientist has flagged as a potentially major problem.
“Because the water table is so shallow, [Legado] has to de-water the site through pumping or drainage, and lowering the water table will create a greater driving force for moving the contaminants” toward the new structure, said Steven Deverel, a Davis-based hydrologist who filed the results of his environmental study with the Los Angeles Department of City Planning on Sept. 14.
Deverel was hired to conduct his study by opponents of Legado Del Mar, which due to its size and scope has for years drawn the ire of residents concerned with increasing density and traffic as well as the proposed building’s relatively towering 56-foot height.
Deverel’s report paints a much more alarming picture than the conclusions of a January environmental assessment by Brentwood-based CAJA Environmental Services, hired by Legado to fulfill city planning requirements.
While the CAJA report states that pumping out groundwater “could pull the documented groundwater impacts at Del Rey Cleaners toward the [Legado] site,” it relies on prior soil and groundwater tests between the two sites to conclude that so few contaminants are present that construction “would not result in a significant hazard to the public or environment.”
Benjamin Reznik, an attorney representing the Beverly Hills-based Legado Companies, criticized Deverel’s report as heavy on speculation and light on specifics. He said city regulations would force the developer to test groundwater prior to discharging it.
“If the plume were to migrate toward our project, we would have to clean it up, but there is no evidence that will happen,” Reznik said.
Deverel also faults the CAJA study as failing to take into account the distribution and movement of water if digging and removal of groundwater was to occur at Jake’s Lot.
In his analysis of the dry cleaner’s site, Deverel writes that the removal of water during construction could lower the high-water table enough to impact nearby areas of the Ballona Wetlands. Estimating a pumping rate equal to 10% of the maximum groundwater removal of 1.7 million gallons per day, he calculated “a hydraulic influence of over 1,000 feet to the northeast” of Jake’s Lot, an area that encompasses not only Del Rey Cleaners but a portion of wetlands.
“Site de-watering may alter the groundwater hydrology at the Ballona Wetlands, which in turn may result in altered water quality and changes in water levels in the marsh habitat,” Deverel wrote. “Specifically, shallow groundwater levels can be lowered at the wetland. This may in turn affect the salinity of the wetland by drawing water of different quality (e.g. salinity) into the wetland.”
WHAT LIES BENEATH
The State Water Resources Control Board lists three toxins — tetrachloroethene, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride — as “contaminants of concern” at the Del Rey Cleaners site.
Tetrachloroethene, also called perchloroethylene or PCE, is commonly referred to as dry cleaning fluid.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies tetrachloroethene as likely to be carcinogenic to humans.
Trichloroethylene (TCE), according to the EPA, is primarily an industrial solvent that some studies have related to cancer in humans, with concentrated exposures shown to have adverse effects on the central nervous system.
The EPA has classified vinyl chloride, used in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and vinyl, as a Class A human carcinogen.
The CAJA report refers to a 2000 study of soil samples that “concluded concentrations were moderate and consistent with ‘minor, incidental spills’” of PCE and additional findings that potentially harmful chemical vapors could not be found in detectable levels in and around the site.
A follow-up groundwater investigation did not find a significant level of toxic vapors but recorded PCE concentrations of as high as 43,500 micrograms per liter. The State Water Resources Control Board sets the current state maximum safe contaminant level for PCE in groundwater at five micrograms per liter.
A Sept. 15 memorandum by state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment toxicologist Nathalie Tham also raises red flags about the Del Rey Cleaners site. Relying on results of a March 2014 soil investigation that found significant levels of PCE contamination, Tham writes that “OEHHA estimated the risk and hazards to workers and off-site residents … exceed common benchmarks for occupational and residential exposure.”
Deverel, who began his career 30 years ago as a research geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey before entering private practice as a consultant and expert witness, writes that if a chemical plume at concentrations documented in March were to spread, vapors arising from the soil could pose a threat to residents and businesses above.
“There is a possibility that this plume could move under the surrounding buildings and go high enough to cause vapor intrusion,” Deverel said.
According to the U.S. EPA, vapor intrusion generally occurs when there is a migration of chemicals from contaminated groundwater or soil underneath an overlying building. Typically the chemical concentration levels are low or, depending on site-specific conditions, vapors may not be present at detectable concentrations. In buildings with low concentrations of volatile chemicals, the main concern is whether the chemicals may pose an unacceptable risk of chronic health effects due to long-term exposure to these low levels.
An earlier analysis by Bowyer Environmental Consulting found PCE and related compounds in soil and soil vapor “over
a wide portion” of the former Del Rey Cleaners site.
In an interview, Deverel expressed concern about the quantity of chemicals there.
“It is a smaller plume than I have seen at other sites, but the concentration of contaminants is quite high,” he said.
A CHANGING PLAYA DEL REY
The Legado Companies first announced plans for Legado Del Mar in 2009.
The issue went before the Neighborhood Council of Westchester – Playa’s Land Use and Planning Committee the following year, where it was met with strong opposition from residents in the vicinity of the project. Following project revisions related to parking and traffic concerns, Legado Del Mar went back to the committee in 2013 and found support from a majority of the committee despite increasingly vocal community opposition.
The full neighborhood council discussed Legado Del Mar in December 2013 but could not reach a consensus. The board took up the matter again in February and declined to support the development.
Meanwhile, the economic landscape of Playa del Rey has been changing.
The rustic Outlaws Bar & Grille, a locals-friendly fixture on Culver Boulevard since 1984, shuttered in November 2013 and remains vacant. That property, at 230 Culver Blvd., is owned by the Legado Companies. The company’s website lists that parcel as the future site of Legado del Rey, which at one point was envisioned as a mixed-use apartment and retail project. The former Outlaws site lies southwest of the former Del Rey Cleaners, between that parcel and their proposed Legado Del Mar.
The Legado Companies’ website also contemplates renovation of a historic building between Outlaws and Legado Del Mar that currently houses Tanner’s Coffee.
A fourth project, dubbed Playa Legado, envisions developing a 700-foot stretch of beachfront property at the terminus of Culver Boulevard known to locals as Toes Beach.
Earlier this year, two higher-end dining establishments — Playa Provisions and Bacari PdR — opened along Culver near Jake’s Lot, adjacent to older neighborhood establishments such as Mo’s Place, Cantalini’s Salerno Beach Restaurant and The Shack.
Legado Companies has filed a mitigated negative declaration for Legado Del Mar to satisfy city officials that the company does not need to fund a lengthy and costly environmental impact report (EIR).
Opponents of the project believe an EIR is vital to better understanding the implications of the project.
A decision is expected from the city Planning Commission next year.
Deverel said he finds the CAJA environmental study to be inadequate.
“They don’t seem to be concerned about groundwater hydrology. They really need to do more analysis,” Deverel said. “There are enough red flags there for me to say it needs an EIR.”
Julie Ross — a member of the neigborhood group Playa del Rey Guardians Society, who paid for Deverel’s study — said she was “angry, really angry” upon learning of the toxic plume under the former Del Rey Cleaners through the CAJA report.
“We needed a hydrologist to confirm what we suspected, which was that de-watering for the subterranean parking structure could move the PCE/TCE plume from under the Old Del Rey Cleaners down to the project site at Jake’s Lot, which [Deverel’s report] did,” Ross said.
At a community meeting last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin expressed his opposition to Legado’s height and density but stopped short of asking for an EIR.
“I stand with the community on their concerns that the project is too tall and out of character with the neighborhood. I support their concern and I intend to stand with them,” Bonin said. But, “I think what we need to do is examine the deficiencies of [Legado’s environmental analysis]. It benefits the community if they can demonstrate its deficiencies,” he said.
However, Michele Cooley-Strickland, who represents downtown Playa del Rey on the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, is asking the city to require the developer to conduct a more detailed analysis due to concerns about the toxic plume. In addition, the city plans to dig west of the Legado Del Mar site next year to install a sewer line.
“A full environmental impact report is necessary because of the coalescing of the cumulative impact of these different issues. We don’t want to raise the issue now and have another environmental evaluation three years or five years later,” Cooley-Strickland said. “The toxins that have accumulated over the years where the cleaner was have not been addressed, and I think all of the environmental concerns that residents have are symptomatic of this particular development not looking at things in their totality.”
Legado Companies attorney Reznik said he sees no reason to produce an EIR.
“What do you gain by doing an EIR? An EIR doesn’t get you any more information than we already have,” Reznik said.
In Deverel’s view, an EIR may present the Legado Companies with two expensive choices: “They can give up on the idea of having an underground garage or they can clean up the site,” he said.