Down the drain

Whistleblower calls out Chico Unified School District for illegally dumping toxic chemicals

A CUSD insider says district custodians regularly dump toxic cleaning products down storm drains leading to Chico creeks and groundwater.

A CUSD insider says district custodians regularly dump toxic cleaning products down storm drains leading to Chico creeks and groundwater.


Tipsters: There are plenty of ways to turn in people who dump illegally into storm drains. In Chico, call 879-6950. California Fish and Game operates a confidential, toll-free tip line for poachers and polluters at 888 DFG-CALTIP.

“Do not dispose of in storm drain.”

That’s what is printed on bottles of chemical stripper used on a regular basis at schools throughout the Chico Unified School District. It’s also a warning a district insider says has gone unheeded for many years.

A concerned CUSD employee, who contacted the CN&R last week, explained how the toxic product is diluted with water and mopped onto vinyl- and asbestos-tiled floors to break down the wax before a new protective coating is applied. Scrubbers are used with the chemical mix to melt the wax and grime, which is then sucked up by an industrial wet vacuum.

Jim Jameson, a custodian who has performed this task countless times, said the dirty, milky solution is then dumped directly down on-site storm drains.

“Every custodian does this,” said Jameson, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

The district employee, who has worked as a custodian for close to a decade, has repeatedly witnessed this process at most school sites. He said it’s carried out routinely throughout the school year, within classrooms, hallways and multipurpose rooms of CUSD schools, and then again during a massive cleaning operation come summer.

Hillyard, manufacturer of the mop-on product called Devastator, markets the chemical cleaner as its “most aggressive stripper ever.” The product is labeled as corrosive. It contains butyl cellosolve, benzyl alcohol, ethanolamine and sodium xylene sulfonate.

A material data safety sheet linked through CUSD’s website also specifically warns users to not dispose of the product in storm drains. It notes how one of its chemical ingredients is toxic to fish. Jameson said the dilution ratio is generally about one-half to an entire gallon bottle of Devastator to about five gallons of water.

The CN&R visited one of the schools to get a look at the product and the drains—some of which are equipped with a tiled fish logo that says “No dumping—drains to creek or groundwater.”

That logo is not an exaggeration, according to Matt Thompson, a city of Chico senior civil engineer.

“It all goes to the creeks or is infiltrated into the groundwater,” he said of Chico’s storm drains, which are not connected to the city’s water pollution control plant. “None of it gets treated.”

Dumping anything down the drains violates both the federal Clean Water Act and city code. Municipal fines, he said, can be $1,000 per day, plus the costs incurred by cleanup.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, he added. Residents are allowed to discharge chlorine-free pool water into the drains, for example. They are allowed to wash their vehicles in front of their homes, too, though the city encourages doing so on pervious surfaces such as lawns. The city will even loan out a special car-washing kit that diverts and pumps the wastewater onto landscaping.

“It’s really a simple act to stop and think of what you’re pouring down the storm drains,” Thompson said.

CUSD is aware of the regulations associated with storm drains. The district operates under a permit issued by the State Water Resources Control Board requiring the implementation of a Storm Water Management Plan. The purpose of the plan includes identifying potential sources of pollution and providing so-called “best management practices” to reduce contamination into storm water.

The longtime employee says one of the products heading down the inlets is a floor stripper called Devastator.


These practices include treatment controls, operating procedures, and efforts to control spills, leaks, runoff, waste disposal, or drainage from raw materials. They are to be employed by district staff members and outside contractors.

Robert Crandall, assistant executive officer of the Water Quality Control Regional Board in Redding, confirmed that CUSD submitted a plan to his office in October 2008. It is yet to be approved.

“But it does not alleviate them from complying with the requirements,” he added.

According to the document, which is available at the district’s website (, chemical spills, including various cleaning compounds, are among the many potential sources of pollution at school sites. Best management practices were slated to occur in stages over a five-year period, starting in 2008.

Crandall pointed out that storm-water training for custodians was to begin in the first year for at least 20 percent of the staff, and then continue over the course of five years until the entire custodial staff is educated on the subject. This instruction, according to the document, would take place during existing safety meetings.

And that’s exactly what should have taken place, according to Mary Leary, CUSD’s director of maintenance, operations and transportation, who says all custodians have been trained to properly handle chemicals. In fact, she says that the district is ahead of the timeline in training employees in storm-water issues.

“Every single custodian in the district has been trained in storm-water issues,” she said.

Leary cites a number of meetings with storm-water education.

It was discussed at a special meeting for all custodial staff two years ago at Chapman Elementary School. A majority of custodians would have further training in the first year of the Storm Water Management Plan during a staff-wide school meeting at each CUSD site. Moreover, she said, custodians are required to attend an annual meeting during summer in which storm water is one of the issues discussed.

Leary acknowledged that she hasn’t attended every one of those meetings, nor is she on site when the schools are cleaned.

“I can’t follow each and every one of them each and every day,” she said. “So, if they’re doing it, I have an employee problem.”

Leary indicated that she was aware that there might be some existing problems with janitorial staff improperly disposing of chemicals. She said the district has already retrained some of the employees, and that it now appears the training is again necessary.

That’s true for Jameson, who is adamant he’s never been privy to or heard of this educational component.

“I’ve been at every single yearly training [since taking the CUSD job], and there’s never been any storm-water training,” said the custodian, who says he’s witnessed chemical dumping as recently as April. According to Leary, chemicals should be dumped in a designated janitorial sink.

But Jameson says he had no idea that was the proper disposal protocol. “If they were training people to do it property, they’d be doing it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crandall said his agency will look into the alleged pollution.

“It definitely warrants an investigation,” he said. “We always believe in checking this out as thoroughly as we can.”