Pollution under Yosemite may be scuttling park plans

September 17, 1992|By New York Times News Service

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- Environmentalists hav long complained about commercialism and overcrowding in this jewel of the National Park system. But the truth may be worse: Soil and water under the park are polluted with toxic chemicals that have leaked from underground fuel tanks for decades.

The contamination has become a major issue in the bidding to buy the company that provides hotel, restaurant and other visitor services in the 102-year-old park.

Citing the possible financial liability for cleaning up the company's pollution, one major potential bidder dropped out of the race for the coveted 15-year contract this month. The dropout, Host International, a subsidiary of the Marriott Corp., said the liability could eat up or even exceed the profits. The pollution, and other financial uncertainties, raises the question of whether there will be any suitable entrants by the Nov. 16 deadline set by the National Park Service for bids on what at $87 million is by far the largest concession contract in the national park system.

The competition for the Yosemite contract has been widely watched as a national model for redefining the role of private operations in the parks. Ultimately, the park service goal is reduced commercialization in the parks and higher fees to the government.

Workers are cleaning up 38 sites polluted with toxic chemicals from heating fuel, gasoline, diesel fuel and solvents like paint thinner. They are still digging up and testing the areas around some 50 storage tanks that could be leaking. The work is being paid for by the company that has operated the the park's concessions for years, the Yosemite Park and Curry Co., a telephone company, Pacific Bell, and the park service.

State and park service officials say the pollution poses no direct threat to the park's 3.5 million annual visitors. They say the chemicals are far above the 300-foot-deep wells used for drinking water and are in areas either paved over or fenced off from public use. Nor is the contamination any more serious than that routinely found today in most cities near gas stations and industrial areas.

But it will come as a surprise to park visitors seeking refuge from urban ills in this land of soaring granite walls, bighorn sheep, black bears and giant sequoias. Visitors have already been jarred this summer, when, for the first time ever, the park service banned daytime campfires in Yosemite Valley because of growing air pollution in the narrow mile-wide valley.

The park service has already taken some of the luster off the contract by asking the new concessionaire to reduce lodgings by 15 percent, move its headquarters and much employee housing out of the park and pay the government at least 5 percent of gross receipts into a capital improvement fund, up from 0.75 percent now paid by the Yosemite Park and Curry Co. under the 30-year-contract expiring next year.

Under the new contract, all the fees would be earmarked for Yosemite improvements, instead of going into a general fund. In addition, the new owner will have to spend $29 million on new park improvements, build housing for employees outside the park, pay for an as-yet-undesigned new transportation system for visitors and staff members, take on such new responsibilities as snow plowing and buy out the equity -- known as "possessory" interest -- that Curry has accrued by building and improving the hotels and other park structures over the years.

The Curry Co. is a subsidiary of MCA Inc., the Los Angeles-based entertainment conglomerate that was sold last year to the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. of Japan.

As part of the Park Service's contract with MCA, the new owner must both pay MCA for that possessory interest -- valued at $61.5 million -- and take on the new responsibilities to renew the Curry contract.

Curry's earnings before taxes last year were $9 million on gross revenues of $87 million. The debt burden and new responsibilities plus possibly millions for additional cleanup of underground pollution will weigh heavy in the balance as companies decide whether to bid for the contract.

"We need someone who can pay us the most money fastest and operate it effectively," said Stephen G. Crabtree, chief of the office of concessions management at the park service's regional headquarters in San Francisco.

Seizing on public resentment over Japanese ownership of American companies, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. browbeat MCA into waiving its preferential right to renew the Yosemite contract when it expires on Sept. 30, 1993 and to sell Curry to an American concern. MCA also agreed to finance the sale of Curry, valued at $61.5 million, with a 15-year-note at 8.5 percent annual interest.

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