Read the first story about the discovery of methane at Escaya here.

Methane and volatile chemicals such as benzene have been discovered underground at a yet-to-be completed Otay Ranch project that is marketed as one of the largest planned housing developments in the U.S.

Home buyers in the Chula Vista community known as Village of Escaya can’t move into their homes because government officials have stopped installation of water meters.

inewsource is the first to report on the discovery, though contractors first noticed the potential problem in April. Water sampling began the following month and the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health was alerted in June.

“The district is doing its due diligence to make sure that they’re evaluating the situation,” Otay Water District spokeswoman Tenille Otero said Friday.

The Otay Water District provides water and wastewater service to nearly a quarter-million customers in San Diego County. It typically takes responsibility for a developer’s work, including pipes and facilities, once a project is completed. In this case, the district is refusing to install water meters within the 450-acre development until the problems with the methane and other chemicals are resolved.

Other agencies involved include the Chula Vista Development Services Department and Chula Vista Elementary School District, as well as several private companies.

HomeFed Corp. owns 4,450 acres in Chula Vista’s Otay Ranch, which is approved for 13,000 homes and nearly 2 million square feet of commercial development. The Escaya development – the area affected by the methane and volatile chemicals – has townhomes starting in the mid-$300,000s and single-family homes as high as the low-$700,000s.

The land’s developer, Carlsbad-based HomeFed Corp., is marketing nearly 1,000 homes in an area adjacent to the Otay Landfill, auto-salvage yards and the country’s largest producer of construction aggregates. According to HomeFed’s most recent quarterly report, 165 homes were under contract to close within Escaya as of Oct. 24.

HomeFed’s president and chief executive officer, Paul Borden, told inewsource on Friday the discovery of methane and other volatile compounds is not unusual in California.

“It’s going to be dealt with absolutely the way it should be dealt with,” Borden said, adding that HomeFed is working out mitigation measures with the water district. The matter will be resolved “very soon,” he said.

Borden said home buyers also have been alerted to the issue.

“Among the many many things that are disclosed, this is definitely one of them,” he said.

Methane is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and flammable gas primarily used for heating, cooking and generating electricity. It can be dangerous when it displaces oxygen — causing asphyxiation — or when it accumulates at certain levels and can explode. Benzene and other volatile chemicals can be cancerous depending upon the amount present.

If mitigated properly, the potential physical hazard and risk to human health is considered “insignificant” for the occupants of Escaya, according to a risk assessment report issued in August.

Escaya site plan showing methane concentrations in soil gas at 5 feet below grade. Source: Human Health Vapor Risk Assessment Report, TRC Solutions, Inc. (Click to enlarge)

The Chula Vista Development Services Department is reaching out to other jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, to make sure it is following best practices, said Kelly Broughton, the department’s director.

“We’re also working with the City Attorney’s Office to look at engaging an outside methane expert for ourselves to see if there are any other protocols we should follow,” Broughton said.

The Chula Vista Elementary School District plans to build a school in Escaya, but that site has yet to be tested. District spokesman Anthony Millican told inewsource the district is still in the “due diligence” phase and has no intent to pull out of the project.

“You mitigate it,” Millican said of the methane and volatile chemicals found at Escaya. “If you can’t, then you don’t build there.”

According to the risk assessment report, a charter school is planning to build on a lot adjacent to the landfill and salvage yards.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Chula Vista Elementary School District planned to build a school on a lot with the highest concentration of methane, adjacent to the landfill. While the district does plan a school in Escaya, it is on a different lot that hasn’t yet been tested. A charter school plans to build on the lot adjacent to the landfill.

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in...

Brandon Quester was the director of data and visuals at inewsource. To contact inewsource with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email contact [at] inewsource [dot] org.