RANCHO PALOS VERDES — One of the nation’s best spots for whale-watching is off-limits for at least the next 18 months as governments debate over who will pay a $2 million environmental cleanup bill.
The Point Vicente Interpretive Center has been closed since August 1999 because of lead contamination a World War II rifle range is believed to have left behind at the site.
“This year I’m really sad,” said Holly Starr, the center’s recreation supervisor, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s hard to see the interpretive center without any people in there. I just can’t fathom the reopening being that far away.”
The contamination was discovered last year shortly after the city broke ground on a 7,000-square-foot expansion project. A test of the soil turned up bullets and lead contamination, which can cause brain damage in children.
City officials have spent more than $800,001 disposing of the a hazardous waste landfill, but have determined it will cost another $2 million to finish the job.
They have filed claims with the federal government and Los Angeles County, which owns the land, seeking money to help pay for the cleanup.
“We really believe it’s the federal rifle range that caused the problem, and it’s on county property,” said Rancho Palos Verdes City Manager Les Evans. “We’re all in this together.”
But county officials say their agreement with the city absolves them from any environmental cleanup liability. They have asked the Army Corps of Engineers to investigate whether the military is to blame for the contamination, hoping the federal government will foot the bill.
A Corps spokesman said the agency expects to learn by the end of the year whether the site is eligible for funding under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, which funds cleanup efforts at former military sites.
But Evans said getting federal money could take years because the allocation would require congressional approval.
And even if they get the money, the cleanup and expansion project would take a year and a half to complete.
The center, which is owned and operated by the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, normally gets about 60,000 visitors a year and was supposed to be opened in time for the start of whale-watching season Dec. 1.
It sits on a peninsula that juts into the paths of thousands of gray whales migrating between waters!off Alaska and Baja California.!During the December-to-March season, mother whales and their newborn calves frolic near the cliffs and rest in the kelp beds.
“I don’t think there is another spot like it,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, project director for the Gray Whale Census Project. “Sometimes the whales get so close you hear them before you see them.”
Without the use of the center, which opened in 1984, whale watching is tougher for both spectators and volunteers who help conducu an annual whale census.