Council calls state’s bluff on dump cleanup

A City Council majority rejected a comprehensive plan for closing the southeast Chico burn dump Tuesday night in a vote that told state officials: “Hasta la vista—see you in court if we have to.”

On a 4-3 vote that surprised some audience members, the council voted to forge ahead with a modified citizen-committee proposal just minutes after a state official said it would fail to meet regulations requiring closure of old burn dumps harboring hazardous waste.

The state’s Jim Pedri indicated the council vote would force his Regional Water Quality Control Board to take Chico to court. He said he’d seek an injunction forcing the city to undertake a cleanup project in compliance with state regulations. “Thousands of sites with waste worse than this one’s are cleaned up all the time,” said Pedri, indicating his irritation with community opposition to a comprehensive, state-favored cleanup project.

In fact, a court injunction may be what some City Council members want, ensuring that more work than necessary isn’t undertaken and introducing the possibility that insurance companies bear some of the cleanup costs.

Outside the council meeting room, City Attorney David Frank said a lawsuit filed by the state that forces Chico into specific action may trigger insurance company coverage that helps pay for some share of the city’s costs. “It depends on what kind of lawsuit is filed,” Frank said. “We have to find a policy with coverages that were in effect” in the 1960s, when much of the dumping occurred.

Newer policies have pollution exclusions, Frank explained.

The burn dump at Bruce and Humboldt roads has long been the object of debate and legal action. At various times until its 1965 closure, dump sites in that area were run by the city, county and/or private citizens. The state issued cleanup orders in June, forcing the city to decisive action.

Prior to the council vote, Pedri offered some flexibility in terms of state-imposed deadlines. In a bid to satisfy community concerns, Pedri said the bulk of the work could be done during summers to insure that students at nearby Marsh Junior High School weren’t affected by particles of lead-contaminated dust.

A majority of members on a citizens’ committee had fought the kind of project favored by the state, arguing that lead-contaminated dust can’t be controlled. Such a project would involve heaping up truckloads of contaminated dirt and capping the heap with an impermeable material.

Chicoans have also argued that the cleanup has been driven as much by development plans as by state health and environmental regulations.

Councilman Dan Nguyen-Tan moved to stick with a modified version of the citizen-committee proposal, winning support for the motion from Councilmembers Coleen Jarvis and Scott Gruendl and Mayor Maureen Kirk. The city would remove contaminated dirt from the entire Dead Horse Slough seasonal waterway.

Outraged Councilmembers Steve Bertagna, Larry Wahl and Dan Herbert saw the city putting itself on a collision course with the state. "I honestly think this is irresponsible," said Bertagna. "It sets a dangerous precedent when we can’t come to a consensus" on closing a hazardous-waste site, he added.