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Report: Calif. Utility Discreetly Buying Homes to Clear Toxic Soil

A California utility is spending millions to discreetly clear up contaminated soil in an iconic San Francisco neighborhood.

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A California utility is spending millions to discreetly clear up contaminated soil in an iconic San Francisco neighborhood.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. purchased eight homes outright and replaced the soil surrounding nine others, as well as a new condominium development, in the Marina District over the past four years. PG&E remains in talks to purchase two additional homes, the paper added.

The Marina District lies on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula between the Presidio and Fisherman's Wharf. Today, home prices can reach well into the millions, but in the late 19th century the area housed two small fuel plants.

Those plants' owners were combined into PG&E in 1905. The following year, an earthquake laid waste to much of San Francisco and the plants were subsequently demolished. But residue from the facilities — including carcinogens such as benzene and naphthalene — remained underground.

PG&E and state officials said that the chemicals are not dangerous while buried, but future developments could bring them to the surface. The utility enacted a voluntary testing program and, if decontamination is needed, either purchases the home in question or replaces the soil.

The utility added that it is under no obligation to address the contaminated soil and that it circulated signs about the program throughout the neighborhood.

Critics, however, argued that many residents remained unaware of the work. Some accused the utility of downplaying the dangers of the contaminants and conducting insufficient testing.

The Chronicle noted that homeowners that sell their property to PG&E were required to sign nondisclosure agreements regarding terms of their sales. One resident joined with a local fisherman's group to sue the utility over the testing, and a settlement reached in 2015 required a broader investigation.

A final report stemming from that settlement — which could take another year, according to the paper — could prompt the parties to return to federal court to determine how PG&E will address its findings.

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