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By J.W. August, freelance journalist, Times of San Diego, a member of the San Diego Online News Association


May 4, 2022 (San Diego) – 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, Captain 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 now for the Navy to resume cleaning up the hazardous remains from the fire pit burnoffs.  Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to clean up various sections of the pits. This is the result of dumping hazardous materials into pits that were set on fire – a process which began in the 1950s and lasted until 1971. The island sits in San Diego Bay, one of our region's more valuable resources for the military and the San Diego economy.

Kevin Dixon, with NavBase Coronado’s public affairs office, acknowledges that it is also a concern for the USN  because the “Navy lives, works, and trains in and around the San Diego Bay.  Making sure that it is safe is a Navy priority.”

“The Fiery Marsh '' name comes from the flames and smoke generated from 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 discovered  “significant releases” of hazardous wastes. Also found while testing the soils: “Low-level radioactive waste was formerly present,” but that was removed, said the Navy.


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.”


The site in question, says Dixon, “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 had 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 clean-up 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, it "is evaluated (by) the U.S EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which can make a final, binding determination," says Gibson.  


To date, the state and the Navy have not resolved their differences on how the work should proceed. 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 by productions remain, say the state agencies pushing for the cleanup.  It's pointed out that contaminated groundwater is discharged to the bay through the movement of the water and the contamination extends to 120 feet below the island's surface.  A Google satellite map provides an overview of the areas of concern.


Among the toxic chemicals is  1,1,1-Trichloroethane also known as methyl chloroform, just one of a number of chemicals still on site. Information on this man-made product's carcinogenic effects on humans is not known, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


The EPA states that “Two animal studies have not demonstrated carcinogenicity from oral or inhalation exposure to methyl chloroform; however, the data are considered to be inadequate due to the low survival of the rats in one study and the low dose levels used in the second study.”  Contact with human skin can cause irritations, the agency says.


The State of California also believes that increased exposure raises risks for humans.


Ailene Voisin, speaking for the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, says 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 other Navy sites; Naval Base San Diego and Naval Base Point Loma.   


NAS North Island was commissioned in 1917. Today, its mission is to operate and maintain the services and materials necessary to support the operation of the Navy’s aviation activities.


J.W. August is an award-winning journalist and freelance producer who has served as investigative producer for NBC 7 San Diego and as managing editor and senior investigative producer at ABC 10 San Diego. His in-depth investigations have included a wide range of topics such as  rising seas, hate groups, nuclear fuel storage, stem cell clinic claims, dolphin deaths, and massage parlors as fronts for organized crime.

His 40-year career includes many honors, notably 35 Emmy awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the National Press Club award for consumer reporting, the Freedom Foundation award for coverage of hate groups along the border, the National Society of Professional Journalists’ Sunshine Award for fostering open government in San Diego, and the Investigative Reporters and Editors award for outstanding investigative reporting on illegal waste dumping.

August is past president of the Society of Professional Journalists San Diego Chapter, as well as past president of Californians Aware, a public interest group devoted to helping the press and public hold public officials accountable for their actions. He is also an adjunct professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, teaching investigative skills and long-form storytelling to aspiring future journalists.


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