Pier 39 is part of the contaminated waterfront area under investigation. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Plans resume to clean up waterfront contamination near Pier 39

PG&E resumed work this month on plans to clean up contamination along a section of San Francisco’s northeastern waterfront after a “pause” caused by the utility’s recent bankruptcy filing, officials said last week.

But as the effort continues, the environmental group Greenaction has raised concerns about some of the suggested cleanup measures, like capping.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered PG&E and the Port of San Francisco in August 2017 to investigate and potentially cleanup contamination in an area around Pier 39.

The order came after elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) were discovered in the waterfront sediment “potentially impacting water quality and biological resources,” according to a March 22 memo to the Port Commission from Elaine Forbes, Port of San Francisco’s executive director.

The contamination is believed to have come from PG&E’s former Manufactured Gas Plant at 250 Beach St., which the utility purchased in 1911 and operated until 1931. The site was previously used by the San Francisco Coke and Gas Company from 1900 onward for coke and coal gas production. The property was later sold and in the 1960s was developed into a motel with retail and restaurant facilities.

Concerns about the contamination were first raised in 2011 and 2013, when Pier 39 Marina discovered elevated PAH concentrations in required sediment samples taken for an application to dredge the Pier 39 Marina East and West Basins.

That led to the water board-ordered investigation in 2017.

“PG&E has responded to the Water Board, with Port cooperation and oversight,” the Forbes’ memo said. “The investigation found that contamination extends from Pier 39 East Basin to Pier 45 East and approximately 1,000 feet offshore.”

The area is an important section of the waterfront for ferry service, retail tenants and a marina. That includes Pier 39 LLC and two ferry companies, Blue and Gold Fleet and the Red and White Fleet.

The investigation pinpointed areas now marked for clean up around Piers 39, 41, 41 ½, 43 and 43 ½.

Kathryn Purcell, the Port’s senior environmental planner, described some areas to the Port Commission last week as “sitting within” the ferry operations.

“We got to finalize the investigation report this next spring at the same time PG&E is embarking upon studies to support a remedial action plan, geotechnical survey work, conceptual design to come forward to the Port and our stakeholders and the agencies later this year on what remedial concepts could work within this very diverse area,” Purcell told the commission.

The memo noted that PG&E’s Jan. 29 bankruptcy filing “resulted in a pause” in the cleanup effort but that “beginning the first week of March 2019, PG&E resumed work.”

Darrell Klingman, a manager with PG&E’s environmental remediation program, confirmed to the commission that PG&E was permitted by the bankruptcy judge to continue with environmental work that has “rate recovery mechanisms in place” and “these projects that we are talking about fit into that bucket.”

PG&E is to submit a Feasibility Study and Remedial Action Plan to the water board by the end of the year. The water board is also working on a draft California Environmental Quality Act study for the work that is expected for release early next year.

Purcell said that “PG&E has been leading all investigations and reporting as the lead potentially-responsible party.”

“Once the remedial plan and the CEQA study are adopted we anticipate that the water board will issue a clean up order for PG&E to remediate and the Port as a property owner to participate,” she said.

The remediation plan will show different alternatives for clean up, “likely including extensive dredging and capping of residual contaminants in various locations,” the memo said.

Sheridan Enomoto, a policy advocate with Greenaction, raised concerns about the idea of capping, which would leave contamination in place at the shoreline under a seal.

“When it comes to capping it has proven not always to work. Hurricane Katrina is a great example of that. Severe impacts of flooding, a lot of that capping lining broke,” she said. “This needs to be more of an ongoing conversation.”

Port and PG&E officials emphasized that no decision has yet been made on what approach to take to clean up the contamination.

Klingman said that the plan will cover everything from full dredging to capping. “It will look at the whole range of what’s available,” Klingman said. “It will look at the technical feasibility of each of those different remedial options and how that fits with the Port’s plans and their tenants plans.”

Port Commissioner Gail Gilman said that the CEQA study would examine these issues and noted that the commission will later “look more deeply into what the actual game plan is for all of this.”

Meanwhile, Port Commissioner Victor Makras said that if there was potential for conflict “it would be in our best interest to be proactive and not let a lot of time run by us.”

“We may want a full clean up with no capping and PG&E may think capping is better or cheaper, and we are going to be in conflict on what the end result is going to be,” Makras said.

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