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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

SeaWorld Build Fought Amid Toxic-Waste Fears

SAN DIEGO (CN) - SeaWorld San Diego continues to dodge litigation over a planned expansion and how they treat their killer whales and animal trainers, but the theme park showed some teeth in a lawsuit of its own.

A lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court Jan. 4 by a group of citizens who call themselves Save Everyone's Access named the San Diego theme park's parent company, Sea World Entertainment, as a defendant. Also sued were the California Coastal Commission and the city of San Diego.

The group claims to be comprised of "citizens of San Diego working towards keeping oceans, bays, rivers and other waterfronts accessible and safe for the recreational use of citizens and visitors."

Save Everyone's Access claims SeaWorld's proposed "Blue World" orca tank expansion poses environmental risks from the digging required to build a 40-foot deep underwater viewing gallery.

The land around SeaWorld and Mission Bay was once a dump used by the city and local aerospace companies and the navy. According to the group, chemicals and heavy metals were dumped at the site, sometimes in underground containers but often the substances were dumped on the shores.

The group notes the South Shores area was categorized as a "class 1 industrial waste site" by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990, the same category as the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County.

Once construction of the Blue World project gets underway, groundwater from the excavation site - likely contaminated from the toxic waste dumped there in the 50s - will be pumped back out into Mission Bay, the group claims.

SeaWorld did not identify in the Blue World proposal made to the commission how they would prevent toxic releases from the construction project into Mission Bay, Save Everyone's Access says.

The group filed an objection to the project with the commission, but SeaWorld's expansion project was ultimately approved in October with the caveat that the park no longer breed orcas in captivity or transfer whales.

The commission declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did the city. SeaWorld did not respond to phone and email requests for comment on the new litigation.

Save Everyone's Access is represented by Patrick Herman, who said unlike other litigation filed against SeaWorld, this case is brought by people concerned about the environmental impacts the park expansion will have on the San Diego coast.

Last week, SeaWorld filed a lawsuit of its own in San Diego Superior Court aimed at poking holes in the conditions outlined in the commission's approval of the Blue World project. SeaWorld claims the commission's permit approval process became "unhinged" due to pressure from animal rights activists.

SeaWorld would only receive its expansion permit if it agreed to never breed another orca at its park or transfer other orca to or from the park, so it asked the court to invalidate the commission's permit decision in the Dec. 29 lawsuit.

The park said the condition "forces SeaWorld to either agree to the eventual demise of its lawful and federally regulated orca exhibition, or withdraw the permit application and forego the effort to enhance the orca's habitat, improve the opportunities for scientific research and enrich the visitor experience."

SeaWorld claims the commission's jurisdiction does not extend to the care, breeding or transport of orcas, but only to development along the coast.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Union Tribune reported this week SeaWorld and state regulators have agreed to settle worker safety citations handed down last year over the park's supposed failure to protect trainers who worked closely with killer whales.

The settlement still needs approval by the California Occupational Safety & Health Appeals Board. If approved, it will squash all four citations and fines of nearly $26,000 and require the park to adhere to strict guidelines on interactions between trainers and whales, according to the newspaper.

Trainers will no longer be allowed to "surf" on top of whales, swim under them or stand on them except when necessary to get out of the park's medical pool.

Settlement papers were filed on Dec. 14 following negotiations that began in November, according to Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza.

SeaWorld spokesman Dave Koontz said the park is pleased with the appeals board's decision to withdraw citations and impose conditions "based largely on SeaWorld's existing safety program."

The settlement's proposed regulations will not likely be noticeable by park goers who attend the Shamu Show: the company put an end to trainers performing in the water with orcas following the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau, who drowned after being attacked by a whale during a show at the Orlando park.

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