Dump cleanup finally approved

The Chico City Council came close this week to finally washing its hands of the Humboldt Road Burn Dump cleanup issue when it adopted an option favored by the conservative bloc of the council and opposed by nearly everyone else with an opinion.

Now the adopted plan, consolidating more than 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil into a single holding cell on property just east of Bruce Road and south of Highway 32, goes to the state for approval and another round of public hearings.

For 15 years the battle has raged over how best to clean up the 157 acres of contaminated land in east Chico. In 1890, a dump was established there on about 10 acres later owned by the heirs of Chico founder John Bidwell. In 1922, the city took over the property and operation of the dump. In the 1940s a number of other, privately owned burn dumps sprang up in the immediate area.

In 1965 the city closed its dump. The general area, stretching up into the foothills, was eyed for future residential growth, and large parcels were purchased by local developers, including Tom Fogarty and Dan Drake. In 1982 the city built a sewer line to the property. In 1987 the city hired Baldwin Construction to extend Bruce Road through the property, causing contaminated soil to end up on Drake’s property.

For years the city’s approach, under pressure from the state, was to work with the landowners to clean the property. But the current council, established by the November 2002 general election, took a different tack and last December approved a plan to clean only the property the city had contaminated. There would be two holding cells established on either side of Bruce Road to contain the bad soil. The city would repurchase the original dump site it had sold 20 years ago.

The private land owners would have to act on their own.

The city would also have to purchase one or two other lots west of Bruce Road to establish enough space for the second cell. Two cells, neighbors and environmentalists argued, would mean less dust and the elimination of an estimated 2,900 truck crossings of Bruce Road to transport contaminated soil to a single cell.

But this week, with Coleen Jarvis absent, the council took up the issue but failed on a 3-3 vote to pass the two-cell plan. There were reports that two councilmembers, Dan Herbert and Steve Bertagna, had agreed to vote for that option as a gesture of goodwill and respect to Jarvis, who is dying of cancer and will not be back to the council.

Both men said they had come to the meeting fully expecting to vote for the two-cell plan but changed their minds when they heard the city’s hired consultant, Andy Kopania, say that the 2,900 trips would not cause substantially more dust.

(Curiously, Kopania’s memo to the city, dated May 11, says “…Alternative 4 [two-cells] would result in a lower potential for the generation of lead dust emissions during the cleanup than would Alternative 3 [single-cell].")

Calling the single-cell plan safer and cheaper, Bertagna and Herbert joined Councilmember Larry Wahl in voting against the double-cell plan, forcing a stalemate. They argued that purchasing and then cleaning the private property by moving its contamination across Bruce Road raised a golden opportunity to recoup some of the city’s cleanup investment. The single-cell plan would cost an estimated $6.25 million, and the property, once decontaminated, could fetch $300,000 to $500,000 an acre as prime commercial land. The two-cell plan would cost $7.75 million.

Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan said he would support the single-cell plan only if the city did not purchase the private property.

“I don’t think the city should be in the business of cleaning up property” for private interests, he said.

Still, realizing the lack of votes needed for approval of the two-cell plan, Nguyen-Tan joined Mayor Maureen Kirk in voting for the other option. He did, however, establish that the purchase of the private property would need another vote by council.

The single-cell plan, as adopted by the city and if approved by the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, would not go into operation until summer 2005 because of the many permits needed to work on the environmentally sensitive east side of Bruce Road.

One of those permits, already applied for by the city, will come from the Butte County Air Quality Management District. However, the application for that permit is based on the two-cell plan, which does not include the massive trucking operation to transport the contaminated soil across Bruce Road; an altered application will most likely have to be submitted.