Chico Scrap Metal gets a break

City grants recycler an extra three years before it’s forced to move

Last Tuesday (Oct. 4), the Chico City Council gave Chico Scrap Metal a three-year extension to remain at its 20th Street location. This comes five years after the owners of the materials recycler were told the business, which has since been identified as having a toxic-soil problem, would have to move by the end of 2011 because of a neighborhood rezone.

Back in 2006 the city adopted the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan, which rezoned the area from light industrial manufacturing to neighborhood/commercial, and told the owner of Chico Scrap Metal to look for a new site because its operations were not compatible with the new uses.

The idea was to revitalize the area and develop a mixed-use neighborhood center on the site that would eventually include a laundromat, hair salon, coffeehouse, restaurant, business offices and a market to sell locally grown produce.

The scrap-metal operations, the city said at the time, conflicted with nearby residential use as well as Chapman Elementary School, which stands within 500 feet of the business, which recycles automobiles and appliances as well as cans and bottles.

This summer Kim Scott, daughter of owner George Scott, told the council that because of tough economic times, the company could not make the move by the end of the year and asked for a five-year extension. The council kicked the issue to the Planning Commission. City staff suggested a two-year extension to get things moving, but the commission adopted the five-year extension and the matter came back to the council for a final decision.

City staff upped its recommendation to a three-year extension, and the council voted 4-2 to do just that.

Mark Wolfe, the city’s planning services director, told the council the three-year extension would balance the goals of the neighborhood plan with the interests of the business owner.

Complicating the matter is fact that soil tests on the site conducted four years ago revealed contamination in the form of chromium, lead, zinc as well as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).

Chico Scrap Metal is under order by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to clean up the site, and in 2008 the Butte County District Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges against the company for failing to abide. But despite pleading no contest to many of the charges, the owners are arguing they had inadequate legal representation and have hired new attorneys. The case is scheduled to be back in Butte County Superior Court on Nov. 17.

Local professional geologist and environmental scientist John Lane, who has worked with the DA on the site, wrote a letter to the city in anticipation of last week’s meeting.

“The human health effects of the contaminants previously documented at this site are sobering,” Lane wrote, adding, “This facility until remediated constitutes an imminent and substantial endangerment to the residents of the area and to the students of Chapman Elementary School.”

Kim Scott contested the toxicology report and said her business had hired a certified toxicologist who said the contaminated topsoil does not present a hazard to the neighbors.

Alvin Greenburg, who operates a business called Risk Science Associates, countered Lane’s letter with one of his own, saying the toxins on the site pose no health threat to neighbors or the students at Chapman Elementary.

He argues that, while gasoline is an extremely toxic substance, “we think nothing of placing our most precious possessions—our children—a few inches away from this very dangerous substance while sitting in a car.”

The gasoline, he says, is contained in a gas tank and as such there is no exposure pathway to the child in car seat. He says likewise toxic dust from the site will not affect the school because, “As anyone who lives in Chico knows, the prevailing winds blow mostly from the northwest to the southeast, away from the school, not towards it.”

Scott also told the council the business provides a recycling service that no other local business can match.

But Mark Stemen, a local environmental activist and Chico State professor, said as long as the business continues to operate, the residents of Chico take the risk, while the company reaps the benefits.