The stoplights at Highway 101 through Santa Barbara had long been a thorn in motorists’ sides — the only impediment to unfettered driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco — but during their removal and the construction of underpasses at Castillo, State, and Garden streets, a different dilemma presented itself.
Caltrans’s digging at Garden Street in 1988 uncovered layers of junk: household waste, metal girders, construction materials, bottles, tires, old newspapers. The county said the site was full of debris from the 1925 earthquake, according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) preliminary report, which concluded no toxins were present. By 1995, however, both soil and groundwater in the surrounding area were found to be contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-VOCs, and lead.
It was a citizen complaint of methane in the area that first alerted the EPA. In 1999, another concerned citizen brought a vial of nasty brown water to Heal the Ocean (HTO) offices, collected from the Garden Street underpass walls during a hard rain. HTO founder Hillary Hauser took a sniff. “The smell was awful,” she said. “I could smell it for the rest of the day.” Heal the Ocean’s water tests subsequently found fecal indicator bacteria, lead, and petroleum hydrocarbon contaminants. Hauser spent the next decade prodding the city to clean up the old dump.
The area was once part of el estero, a marsh that dominated the city’s Eastside in its earliest days, according to Walker Tompkins, and into which residents’ castoffs were thrown, primarily at its deepest point around today’s Ortega Park. In the quadrangle formed by Santa Barbara and Quarantina streets, and Montecito and Carpinteria streets, Tompkins describes an 1886 racetrack paved with cinders, a landmark the California Regional Water Quality Control Board wrote could be seen in a 1928 aerial photograph.
The water board’s 2010 report was a response to Heal the Ocean, exonerating the city of dump ownership; the trash had accumulated unsanctioned. The report also detailed that a photo from 1938 showed land disturbance, i.e., a landfill, near Laguna Channel at Montecito and Garden streets, the home of present-day Agri-Chip and Stoneyard Building Materials, and owned by Wright & Company.
When the Wrights began the process of getting permits for a “Garden Market” at the site — a 27,000-square-foot grocery store, 7,300 square feet of retail, and a 4,000-square-foot third-floor restaurant — the county sent a letter to advise that lead on-site would be monitored at the developer’s expense. It was no surprise for the Wrights, who’d been well aware of the landfill beneath their soil since the 1988 Caltrans work. Eight of the nine test bores on the Garden and Yanonali street property had high levels of lead — up to 1,900 mg/kg, said county Environmental Health’s Paul McCaw; CalEPA’s hazard level for commercial soil is 320 mg/kg — which were found 5-10 feet “below grade,” or in the trash layer.
The state’s report showed similar contamination for blocks around the former landfill, probably from railroad, boatyard, and like industries. The nearest drinking water well was 2,000 feet away and 140 feet in depth, separated from the estero by layers of sand and clay. The city Creek Division’s Cameron Benson said a couple dozen sediment core samples had been done in Laguna Channel under wet and dry conditions, but none had shown high levels of lead.
To remediate the three-acre site, the soil could be entirely removed and deposited at a toxic waste site — “very expensive,” in McCaw’s estimation — or covered. The Wrights, whose project application is not yet final and only at the talking stage with the city, have opted for middle ground so far.
To avoid excavating soil extensively and also to stay out of the water table just 7-10 feet below the surface, project architect Brian Cearnal has positioned the grocery store atop a “podium,” which allows parking entirely at ground level. Runoff through about three feet of new, clean soil would be channeled into rain gardens leading to retention basins to hold storm water before it enters Laguna Channel.
Hauser was initially enthusiastic about the county’s decision to monitor the site for lead, a toxin that remains in soil indefinitely. Upon hearing that only disturbed soil would be remediated, she snorted, “When you have groundwater up and into the trash, say you cover it. It’s a big so what.”