Campus cleanup oily proposition

The test results on the contents of a mysterious tank buried at Chico State University are back: It’s oil.

“That’s actually pretty good news,” said Ken Sator, director of environmental management for Chico State. Samples from the tank and the soil surrounding it were sent to a lab in Redding, which returned the results Oct. 13. “We’re obviously pleased that it’s not something more serious.”

The worst-case scenario could have been the presence of carcinogenic polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—not a stretch, because the single-walled metal tank is buried four feet under the ground mere inches from where, more than a half-century ago, PG&E used to work on transformers. Until 1977, when PCBs were outlawed, they were used as coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment such as transformers.

Sator said that even though the tank contained “plain old oil,” the university still must proceed with remediation that will be overseen by the county and governed by strict rules. The 32-foot-long tank will have to be removed from the ground, where it is placed in close proximity to two buildings in the Facility and Management Services (FMS) yard along First Street near the railroad tracks and Big Chico Creek.

Out of weather concerns, the excavation might not commence until next spring, Sator said. The university is contracting with a consultant to do further testing. He predicts that contaminated pea gravel will pose much of the problem, and the project will certainly cost money. “They can get expensive, and you don’t know how expensive until you get going,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge project.”

In the meantime, it will be business as usual at the FMS yard, where workers were reportedly worried about the tank and what it could have contained.

For years, it was rumored that a tank was buried there, but it wasn’t until a contractor was about to dig into the ground to place conduit—smack in the middle of where the tank sits—as part of the Technology Infrastructure Initiative (TII) that management decided to find out once and for all if the stories were true.

The presence of a “waste oil tank” is noted on a 1926 map from when the yard was used by PG&E, which sold it to the university in the 1950s.

Lisa Randle, local spokesperson for PG&E, said the company has been contacted by Chico State officials and is looking into the history of the property.