Common ground: Council agrees on dump cleanup

In a compromise decision it hopes will appease the state water board gods, the Chico City Council on Dec. 2 voted 7-0 to approve a phased cleanup of the contaminated Humboldt Road Burn Dump.

The city would proceed as early as summer 2004 with the consolidation and capping of contaminated soil on the 157-acre site that from the 1890s through the mid-1960s was used as a municipal and private dump.

First, the city would clean up the 10 acres it owns, plus properties owned by the Dunn and Scott families. As its second step, the city would clean up Dead Horse Slough.

Then, if the owners of the other contaminated properties agreed to help pay for it and absolve the city of legal liability, the city would clean up their land as well. If the property owners don’t like that, they can decide to go it alone with the state.

The successful motion, presented by Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, suggested that the cleanup take place in the summer, when nearby Marsh Junior High School is out. Also, alternate routes would be provided for residents in Stilson Canyon, and there would be independent monitoring both at the site and at the junior high. The city would probably cap several piles, to minimize the amount of lead-contaminated dust being moved around.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) last June issued a cleanup-and-abatement order, telling the city to have its land cleaned up by June 2004 or face fines of $5,000 a day, plus legal action.

After the City Council agreed with the majority of an appointed citizens’ committee on a phased cleanup with little earth-moving, RWQCB staff members wrote back on Nov. 4 that the city’s plan was so far away from what they considered “protective of human health and the environment” that they would not even present it to the water board.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Jim Pedri of the RWQCB said it was the city’s choice to delay action for six months, but if the plan complies with state and federal standards and the remedial-action plan (RAP) and environmental-impact report are done in time for work to start this summer, it should be OK. “The only concern we have is timing,” said Pedri, who prefers keeping the private-property owners in the process. “We had assumed all along that you were doing a package deal.”

Some citizens feel that the city has been giving the owners a free ride, coordinating the cleanup and paying for most of it, with the end result being clean land the developers could build on at a huge profit.

Developer Tom Fogarty, who was on the citizens’ committee and owns some of the affected land, said if the city doesn’t pay for the cleanup, "the incentive for the landowner’s not really there," and they might as well work directly with the state and sue the city later. "It doesn’t appear that the city wants to pay for trash that its agents placed on our land."