Toxins from a fuel spill eight years ago at an abandoned East San Jose building continue to pollute the soil, and city leaders are pushing to expedite cleanup efforts before another environmental disaster.
Councilmember Peter Ortiz is rallying support from colleagues to form an intergovernmental committee to create a timeline for removing the contamination at 2075 Alum Rock Ave. His plan was unanimously approved by the Rules and Open Government Committee on Wednesday and will go to the San Jose City Council later this month for final approval.
The cleanup has largely been delayed because of bureaucracy. Several state and local agencies are working on different components of the project, but are not coming together to find the most efficient path forward, Ortiz said.
“Different people working in silos have kind of held this project back,” Ortiz told San José Spotlight. “So my goal is to get everybody in the room and ask what are the blockers and how can the city come in and help expedite the process?”
The now empty site used to house the Orange County-based SC Fuels, where trucks delivered petroleum products to gas stations, oil change shops and other businesses. In 2015 one of the tanks broke, spilling diesel fuel and contaminating the nearby soil and groundwater.
“It’s been eight years now and still it’s not resolved,” Ortiz said. “That’s why I wanted to escalate it and make sure that everybody knows about it…we need to be accountable to our residents in East San Jose.”
The company was fined $75,000 in 2016 for mismanagement of fuel tanks. In 2021, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board found there were dangerous amounts of chemicals in the soil. So shortly after, the city hired a contractor to remove remaining storage tanks.
In late June, the Fire Department and Santa Clara County Environmental Health Department oversaw the removal of three underground storage tanks. And just weeks ago, Cheryl Wessling, planning department spokesperson, said four more underground containers were found.
“It’s like a mouthful of cavities and they keep coming,” Wessling told San José Spotlight.
Wessling echoed Ortiz’s calls for more collaboration on projects that could be harming the city’s most vulnerable people. The polluted site sits directly across from senior housing, as well as minority low income housing to the north and is close to Regional Medical Center.
Bringing agencies together is often the biggest hurdle for city leaders. Projects like the decontamination of the SC Fuels spill involves multiple agencies—the San Jose Fire Department, which works in tandem with the Santa Clara County Environmental Health Department, as well as the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
“The reason why this is complicated is because it starts to become a real multi-agency thing,” Wessling said.
Vice Mayor Rosemary Kamei said for that reason, creating a central committee to address the decontamination is the best path.
“We really need to be closer in partnership with the (agencies) who can actually make them do this,” Kamei said at the meeting. “It’s going to take a concerted effort. I think these types of things not only are they costly, but they’re very slippery.”
Ortiz said he is eager for the committee to launch so they can quickly decontaminate the soil and remove the remaining contaminated fuel tanks. He said neglect of East San Jose by the city is all too common—pointing to slow government response to other contaminants from Reid-Hillview Airport in the air and soil, as well as the contamination of Lake Cunningham.
“At the end of the day this is a quality of life issue,” Ortiz said.