Dump cleanup no done deal

Just when it seemed as if the controversial and contentious fight over the best way to clean up the old Humboldt Burn Dump property was settled, a syntax- and spelling-challenged letter from a Chico City Council member has re-ignited the matter.

On Jan. 5, Councilmember Steve Bertagna, possibly angling for an early election-year campaign issue, faxed a letter to local media titled: “A letter to the Chico City Council.”

The letter asks for a belated explanation of why the council voted for the dump cleanup alternative it adopted Dec. 2. That option was preferred by a citizen panel, and Bertagna joined the other six councilmembers in casting the unanimous vote for adoption.

That plan calls for capping toxic soil in place on the 157 acres east of Chico and cleaning up the property the city owns, two relatively small parcels of privately owned property next to the city’s and any other private property for which the city is determined liable by a mediator.

Another option, devised about 10 years ago, calls for the city to shoulder the financial burden of the entire cleanup, including all contaminated private property. The plan would move all the contaminated soil into one area for capping. The larger property owners, including developer Tom Fogarty and the family of the late developer Dan Drake, prefer that plan, as both have extensive plans to build subdivisions there.

Both of those developers have been long-time campaign contributors to conservative council candidates, including Bertagna.

The contamination is due to 70 years of dumping and burning on what until 1964 was the city’s official dump site.

When the issue came back before the council right before Christmas for further clarification and a final vote, Bertagna and Councilmember Larry Wahl voted no without explanation.

Apparently, however, the plan includes a couple of steps of which Bertagna was unaware, including laying a level of clean dirt over the capped soil areas and leaving “private property owners to fend for themselves.”

Bertagna uses the letter to blast the “liberal” side of the council for approving the plan.

“As it appears the liberal majority of the Chico City Council has spoken in their decision to Cap the burn dump in place,” the letter begins, “and cover with ‘clean fill’ in order to satisfy the State of California Water quality Control Boards enforcement order.”

He then writes, “We (citizens of Chico) have never heard justification for these actions. Why does it appear the liberal majority is hiding something? Perhaps this is an oversight?”

The letter then asks nine questions, including why the more expensive cleanup plan—he estimates the cost at $20 million to $30 million—was approved as opposed to a “more environmentally responsible” $8 million to $10 million “preferred alternative.”

Bertagna also says the clean layer of dirt will jack up the total cost to $40 million—and that only if the project is done on time and within budget.

City Manager Tom Lando said Bertagna’s cost estimates come from “very rough estimates.”

He said there is an estimate that it could cost $7 million to cover 90 to 100 acres with the clean soil. “There is no doubt [the layer of soil] would be more expensive, but it is designed to lessen the environmental impact to the community,” Lando said.

Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, who brokered the compromise cleanup, says Bertagna’s figures are groundless and that the $8 million to $10 million cost for the other plan is based on 10-year-old estimates.

“I have no idea how Bertagna does his math, nor where he gets his figures. I am not inclined to make up numbers like he has,” Nguyen-Tan said.

Plus, he said, the city has not been presented with any evidence or documents that it is responsible for cleaning the entire site.

“The burden of proof to clean up private property should be with other responsible parties,” Nguyen-Tan said, “not the city.”

Bertagna could not be reached for comment.

Before any action is taken, city staff will present the council with a remedial action plan and an environmental-impact report on the project.

Lando estimated that the property the city is very likely responsible for—its own 11 acres and some privately owned property—will cost $5 million to $6 million.

Bertagna asked Lando and Mayor Maureen Kirk to put the matter on the agenda for the closed-session portion of this week’s City Council meeting but then announced he would not be able to attend the meeting.