Over the past few years, we’ve followed Santa Cruz County plans to build affordable housing, a health clinic and a dental clinic on a largely undeveloped site at 1500 Capitola Road in Live Oak.
Recently we’ve become aware of significant soil and ground water pollution of the site, resulting from discharges of dry cleaning fluid, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), from an historic dry cleaning business at the neighboring 1600 Capitola Road building, now housing a self-service laundromat.
The Fairway Dry Cleaning & Laundry operated from 1964 to at least 1970, just east of the Capitola Road project. In 1970, the facility was sold and the dry cleaning service was discontinued.
Although potential pollution of soils and groundwater from dry cleaning facilities has been well known for decades, the historical presence of the dry cleaning business at 1600 Capitola Road was forgotten. A May 31, 2002 report from the County Health Services Agency to the Board of Supervisors recognized ten dry cleaning facilities in the County as potential sources of PCE contamination, but did not include the 1600 Capitola Road site.
The County Redevelopment Agency purchased the four lots making up the current Capitola Road Project from 1994 to 1997. A 1994 environmental study of 1438 Capitola Road was restricted to hydrocarbon contamination from a previous business. No investigation was conducted on other lots in the area.
PCE contamination was first identified from 2008 to 2012 in a water monitoring well at the 1600 Capitola Road lot, as part of the remediation study for the former Live Oak Texaco station across the street. In its 2012 report, A+ Environmental Solutions did not identify the source of the PCE, noting that “based on the groundwater flow direction and shape of the plume, it is likely originating from a source area southwest of the subject site, across Capitola Avenue.”
In 2017, the County issued an RFQ for development of the Capitola Road Site, and approved an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement with MidPen Housing.
In January 2020, Remediation Risk Management, Inc. (RRM) reported to MidPen Housing that the 1600 Capitola Road Laundromat had operated as a dry cleaner in the 1960s and 1970s.
In February 2020, Weber, Hayes & Associates (WHA) reported to the State Regional Water Quality Control Board that elevated concentrations of the dry cleaning solvent tetrachloroethylene (PCE) had been detected by RRM in two shallow soil vapor samples collected along the eastern property line of the Capitola Road Project. RRM subsequently reported these findings to MidPen Housing.
In September 2020, WHA reported to the County Economic Development Coordinator that “the source of the solvent contamination is from the adjoining property to the east where a dry cleaning business formerly operated (1600 Capitola Road)”.
In a November 11, 2020 Board of Supervisors meeting, PCE contamination of the Capitola Road Project site was first revealed to the public in a Consent Agenda item. The Exclusive Negotiation Agreement with MidPen Housing was amended to reduce the purchase price of the property, allowing MidPen to add passive and active measures to reduce the accumulation of PCE vapors in the three buildings proposed for the project.
In addition to the overwhelming irony of proposing a health clinic and affordable housing project on a site contaminated by carcinogenic chemicals, several questions come immediately to mind:
- Would the County Redevelopment Agency have purchased the property in 1994 if they had known of the PCE contamination?
- Would MidPen Housing have signed the original agreement for the project if they had known of the PCE contamination?
- Why was the public not informed of the 50 year-old pollution of the site until it was slipped into the Board of Supervisors meeting as a Consent Agenda item in November, 2020?
- Will potential affordable housing residents and health clinic workers be informed of the PCE contamination before occupying the properties?
- Are the people who lived in the two houses over the past 50 years on top of the highest PCE concentration know to be alive and healthy?
- Are there any records of health abnormalities in people or their pets and livestock in the neighborhood surrounding the 1600 Capitola Road site.
While the project partners will be protecting the interior of the buildings with vapor barriers under their foundations and active depressurization technology to keep PCE vapors from accumulating in the foundations, PCE and its vapors will remain in the soil and the groundwater beneath the buildings and the unprotected land between the buildings.
Since PCE is heavier than water, it sinks to the bottom of the groundwater table until it reaches impermeable clay. Since the clay layer is not level, and slopes to the southeast, the PCE will continue to migrate downslope, as it has for the past 50 years. PCE is a man-made “forever” chemical, meaning it will be in the ground water, moving inexorably to Leona Creek, Schwann Lagoon and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Complacent and uninformed humans may be content to live and work in the vicinity of vapors from man-made toxic chemicals, but the living soil and waters, with all of the plant and animals species who live here, have no choice. The bioshere on which all life depends is gradually becoming saturated with chemicals with which no species have evolved, including Homo sapiens.
Is it any wonder that more and more animal and plant species are diminishing and heading toward extinction?
Is it any wonder that 2.5 million humans have recently died from exposure to a virus, due in large part to “co-morbidity” (other health threatening diseases and conditions) and generally degraded immune systems?
In the end, Mother Nature bats last.