Will the Site of the Ill-Fated Marina Center Finally Be Cleaned Up? Maybe

by Caroline Griffith

The City of Eureka has received a $300,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to assess Brownfield properties around the city, with a focus on the Balloon Track and Waterfront area, for potential cleanup. According to the City, brownfields are properties that have potentially been “impacted” by hazardous substances and petroleum, and where “expansion, redevelopment or reuse efforts are complicated by the presence or perceived presences of petroleum, hazardous substances, or other contaminants.” Examples of brownfields include old gas stations, auto repair facilities and old manufacturing sites. 

The grant will be used for two phases of assessment. The first phase will inventory and assess properties for potential contamination, including through researching historical uses of the property. If the historical uses indicate that contamination may be present, the property will move into the second phase in which the site will undergo more rigorous on-the-ground testing for contamination, including drilling and taking soil samples. The city is currently in talks with property owners in the Old Town and Waterfront areas, working to get permission to start the assessment process.

Clark Slough Initial Potential Wetlands Assesment Map.
Source: H.T. Harvey & Assosicates Ecological Consultants.

One of the main targets of this program is the Balloon Track, a 42-acre former rail-yard south of Old Town contaminated by underground fuel tanks and years of rail-maintenance activities. This property has been the subject of controversy for decades. In 1999, Wal-Mart tried to build a superstore on the site and in 2006 it was purchased by Clean Up Eureka (CUE) VI, a subsidiary of Security National with plans to build a mixed-use development called Marina Center, which included a Home Depot, office spaces, and residential development. At the request of Security National, the City of Eureka put a measure on the ballot in 2010 asking voters whether to amend the city’s local coastal program and general plan to change the zoning of the property to make way for the proposed project. Humboldt Baykeeper and EPIC sued the city, challenging the validity of the environmental impact report which was used to justify the ballot measure. Although the measure, Measure N, passed by 68%, the development never happened (in no small part due to public pressure from grassroots groups like Citizens for Real Economic Growth (CREG) and especially the work of Humboldt Baykeeper, who successfully appealed the rezoning to the Coastal Commission) and the zoning changes approved by voters only lasted for 10 years, as per the ballot measure language. The former rail yard continues to be zoned “Public,” which allows such uses as schools, parks, police and fire stations, and other public facilities.

The Balloon Track has entered the news again recently as the City looks for ways to divert traffic and add safety features for pedestrians and bicyclists on Broadway via proposed alternate roads through the property (see EcoNews December 2020). Any development is stymied by the contamination of the site. Participating in this brownfield assessment would be the first step for Security National and other participating property owners in securing loan funding for any clean-up.

According to David Caisse, who represents the City of Eureka in this process (other partners include Freshwater Environmental Services and SCS Engineering), though Security National has expressed interest in participating in the process, there is no official agreement yet. In general, Caisse says, property owners in the Old Town and Waterfront areas have shown a lot of interest in the program, but he says the City will not be releasing a list of participating properties until later in the year when buy-in is finalized. Though this particular grant is only for the two phases of assessment, according to Caisse, participation is the first step in getting funding for cleanup. Brownfield cleanup grants are available to local governments, tribes, states and NGOs, but not privately-owned sites. There are, however, other brownfield resources available for helping private landowners clean up eligible sites. For example, the Brownfields Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) Program can be used to provide very low interest loans to privately-owned eligible sites.

Though there are obvious environmental reasons to clean up contaminated properties, especially near Humboldt Bay, the City of Eureka is focusing on the economic advantages of the project as a way to entice property owners to participate. Redevelopment potential was part of the criteria used to evaluate which entities received the EPA grant. As Caisse says, participating in this assessment will let property owners know what sort of development could potentially take place on the property. For example, if contamination is deep and can safely be “capped” with concrete, that changes the type of development that can happen; perhaps they can then build a parking lot without disturbing the contamination. However, the Balloon Track supports coastal wetlands and the property is entirely within the Coastal Zone. According to Jen Kalt at Humboldt Baykeeper, “There are lots of wetlands on the Balloon Track, including Clark Slough, which is important for juvenile Dungeness crabs and other estuarine species. And coastal wetlands can only be filled for coastal-dependent uses, like docks, ports, and trails.” The City’s recent General Plan Update calls for developing the Balloon Track in the style of Old Town rather than in the style of South Broadway.

The City anticipates there will be a public meeting held in Summer of 2021 with more details about which properties will be undergoing a Phase I assessment. In the meantime, if members of the public have input on the project, potential properties for participation, or historical information about properties within the Old Town and Waterfront areas, they are encouraged to contact David Caisee at dcaisse@ci.eureka.ca.gov. To be added to the email notification list about the project, contact emcdannold@ci.eureka.ca.gov