Caution: toxic lawsuit
State board sues city, former dry cleaners over impure water
About every six months, Paul Tullius gets a bill from the state of California for more than $1.4 million. His offense? Tullius owns an old Chico warehouse that might have once contained dry-cleaning chemicals, which the state blames for fouling Chico’s groundwater.
Tullius is named in a lawsuit filed by the attorney general on behalf of the Toxic Substances Control Board, even though no trace of contamination has been found on his property and despite the fact that he was never told of any past dry-cleaning activities at the site, which he purchased in 1988.
“I just thought it was a neat old building,” he said. “It turned out there was a dry cleaners there between 1964 and 1972. I didn’t know it, but then again, even if I had, so what? They’ve done soil sampling, and they never found contamination at the site.”
Tullius is included in the suit along with several other Chico residents, most of whom owned dry-cleaning businesses in the past. Also named are California Water Services Co. and the city itself, which the state blames for allowing leaky sewer lines to contaminate the underground aquifer. City Manager Tom Lando said the state’s reason for naming the city in the suit has more to do with economics than liability.
“I personally think it’s ridiculous,” Lando said. “There’s no doubt the water needs to be cleaned up, but I think it’s probably a state or federal responsibility to do so. The city is involved, I believe, because we have deep pockets. If we’re found to have any liability at all, we could end up with the full cost.”
According to the toxics board, the aquifer underneath Chico contains several “plumes” of water containing tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a suspected human carcinogen and cleaning solvent used mostly in dry cleaning. The plumes were first discovered in 1988, and since then the state has been drilling wells to monitor and treat the water, spending at least $1.4 million—the amount sought from the defendants in the lawsuit—to clean up the mess.
The board’s Web site lists 14 plumes, three of which are thought to have been the direct consequence of bad chemical-disposal techniques on the part of dry cleaners. Also blamed for fouling Chico’s water are Louisiana-Pacific, PG&E, Victor Industries, a Chico scrap metal yard and the Chico Municipal Airport.
Mark Lightcap, district manager for Cal Water, said Chico’s drinking water is safe. The company’s Web site lists the highest concentration of PCE detected in monitoring wells at 3.8 parts per billion, a tiny amount that is removed by filtration before it gets to the consumer.
“The worst threat to Chico groundwater is not a threat people need to worry about,” Lightcap said. “The technology is there to clean it up; it’s just expensive to do it.”
Lightcap said the Cal Water uses a combination of carbon filtration and aeration techniques to clean the water before it reaches Chico residents.
For those being sued, the prospect of someday having to pay millions for something that happened as far back as 50 years ago would be laughable if not for the mounting legal bills already accumulating.
Tullius, who now rents part of his warehouse to a local homeless shelter, said the only winners in the suit would be the attorneys involved.
“This becomes a feeding frenzy for lawyers,” he said. “It’s a little bit inconceivable that you could buy a building and be faced with this. Just the legal bills alone could wipe me out.”
Retired tailor and dry-cleaning-shop owner Vart Vartabedian said he was resigned to the suit.
“I’m 93 years old—what do I care?" he asked.