Dump detractors: It’s in their blood

Something’s in the air concerning the Humboldt Road Burn Dump, and it had better not be lead.

Opponents of the city-backed plan for cleaning up the century-old dump are staging an event intended to raise awareness as the Chico City Council gears up for a meeting on the issue Aug. 26.

While the concerns are complex—including charges that the city is happily footing the bill so developers can create unreasonable growth by building on contaminated land—the loudest cries are coming from the camp that fears moving dirt around to consolidate it before adding a concrete cap would stir up toxic lead.

“This is really a challenge to the state,” said Alan Gair of the Committee for Safe Cleanup, which believes the state water board wants to use the project as a positive example to pave the way for similar cleanups elsewhere in California.

The council must decide if it wants to go with the majority opinion of a committee it appointed last year—a phased cleanup with little earth-moving—or pick Alternative 3, the capping approach, signed off on by three developer-related members of the committee and already OK’d by the state.

“If [the state] can show there’s no lead contamination in the kids they will get a free ride,” said Philip Smith, a politically conservative Chico doctor who plans to turn the tables on the state by publishing a scientific paper based on before-and-after blood tests, coupled with children’s school test scores over time “The lead-spread model that the state’s come up with has never been tested… [The state is performing] a natural experiment.”

Smith said that contrary to reports, his group never really intended to draw blood by the side of the road. For one thing, that would be unsanitary ("We’re not a field hospital in Vietnam,” conceded Gair) and for another, it’s too soon. If none of the councilmembers switch sides, Alternative 3 will get the go-ahead and digging would start in February or March 2004, at which time the group would collect baseline blood lead levels. Smith promises to pay the cost of blood tests for at least 1,000 children.

Committee for Safe Cleanup members will be at the dump site at Humboldt and Bruce roads at 2:45 p.m. on Aug. 22 to answer questions and hand out information. “This is not a stunt,” said Smith, who lives downwind of the dump and is also opposed to Alternative 3 for growth- and tax-related reasons.

Jim Fletcher, a Chico State University professor and president of the California Park Association who served on the City Council in the early 1990s, said the lead issue is not a smokescreen put up by no-growthers. "Our biggest concern is airborne contaminants," he said. "[The city’s] focus on the cheapest cleanup alternative is disturbing."