USS Theodore Roosevelt passes North Island
The USS Theodore Roosevelt passes the “Fiery Marsh” area of North Island. Navy photo

It’s aptly described as “The Fiery Marsh,” covering 95 acres on the southwest side of Naval Air Station North Island. The “fiery” part of the name refers to six pits in the marshy areas of the island that were used to burn off chemicals used on the Navy base.  

A letter sent in February by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board’s executive officer, David Gibson, to the commanding officer at North Island, Capt. Dwight Clemons, asks the Navy”to initiate a formal dispute process in response to the environmental and water quality concerns at the ‘Fiery Marsh.'”

Simply put, the regional board feels it’s time for the Navy to finish cleaning up the remains from the fire pits, where hazardous materials were dumped and set on fire. This began in the 1950s and lasted until 1971.

Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to clean up various sections of the pits. The hazardous refuse mars one of the San Diego region’s most important sites for both the military and the San Diego tourism economy.

Kevin Dixon, a spokesman for the entire Naval Base Coronado complex, acknowledged that the pits are a concern because the “Navy lives, works, and trains in and around the San Diego Bay. Making sure that it is safe is a Navy priority.”

Hazardous materials cleanup sites
Map shows hazardous materials cleanup sites across San Diego Bay. Courtesy State Water Resources Control Board

Over the years the Navy burned a variety of nasty solvents, paints, degreasers, caustic acids and oils. Numerous studies from the Navy and the California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control reported “significant releases” of hazardous wastes. Also found while testing the soil were traces of “low-level radioactive waste,” which has since been removed.

What’s happened over time, as described in the letter to the Navy base command, is “the discharge of hazardous wastes to a large open pit, the discharge of hazardous wastes to four unlined pits and the discharge and burying of hazardous wastes east and south of the four unlined pits.”

The letter also notes “the Navy estimates it discharged 300,000 to 800,000 gallons of liquid hazardous wastes per year” and that the site “received up to 32 million gallons of various liquid hazardous wastes.”

Dixon said the site “has a complicated geological structure. So, carefully assessing how this structure functions is a necessary step toward determining what remediation will be the most effective”.

The marsh has been an issue for clean water and environmental advocates for years. In 1989 the State of California and the Navy agreed on a partial cleanup game plan. Then in 2003 state agencies told the Navy it faced a number of options to “pursue to clean up the soils and groundwater on the site. That did not happen.” 

Now, more than 30 years after the initial cleanup plan, push has come to shove as the San Diego Water Board, the California Department of Toxic Substances, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife are asking the U.S. Navy to wrap up the cleanup, saying “the removal of the contaminated soils, remediation of the groundwater and cessation of the unpermitted discharge must be addressed.”

 What’s happening now is called a “formal Dispute Resolution process” to advance the cleanup. If no consensus is reached at the local level, the matter will be handed over to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for a “final, binding determination.”

To date, the state and the Navy have not resolved their differences on how the work should proceed, but Dixon said, “Naval Base Coronado will continue to work with the State of California to find a solution best suited to addressing the environmental issues.”

Records show some contaminated soil has been removed, but only to six feet below the surface in the worst areas of contamination. Substantial amounts of hazardous waste and combustion byproducts remain, say the state agencies pushing for the cleanup. 

Contaminated groundwater is discharged to the bay, and the contamination extends to 120 feet below the island’s surface. Among the toxic chemicals still found at the site is 1,1,1-Trichloroethane also known as methyl chloroform, a banned ozone-depleting substance that causes human skin irritation.

Ailene Voisin, speaking for the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, said the “Fiery Marsh” is one of several clean-up sites around the San Diego Bay that California regulates, and “in these cases the responsible parties are conducting remedial activities. This includes ongoing agreements to clean up sites at Rohr Industries and Solar Turbine as well as at Naval Base San Diego and Naval Base Point Loma. 

JW August is a San Diego-based broadcast and digital journalist.