Dump dilemma debated

The city sent out 7,000 notices for the July 14 special meeting, and as hundreds of citizens poured into the City Council Chambers, officials stood ready to move the meeting to Chico Junior High School if the crowd exceeded capacity.

They were there to hear committee recommendations about the Humboldt Road Burn Dump and a cleanup project so huge—it’s second in size locally only to the construction of Highway 99—it will likely show up as a case study in industry journals.

The council heard from a parade of Burn Dump Committee members and representatives from agencies charged with overseeing the state-ordered cleanup.

Studies in 1998 and 2002 concluded that the best way to deal with the lead-contaminated soil, left over from more than half a century of using the land as a dump, would be to get it into one pile and stick a cap on it.

But that approach, referred to as Alternative Three, worries the dump’s neighbors and parents of children at Marsh Junior High School near Highway 32 and Bruce Road, who fear that the toxins harbored since the dump was shut down in 1965 would be dangerously stirred up by the dirt-moving efforts.

“We simply found it too risky to support,” said Susan Minasian, speaking for the seven-member majority of the committee that has been meeting since December 2002.

Instead, the committee told the council the city should take a phased approach, cleaning up Dead Horse Slough and fencing the land for now. “The risk for exposure from the site as it currently exists is negligible,” said majority member Valerie Schmidt, adding that regulatory agencies “are going to tell you that we’re dead wrong.”

“You do have a choice. … You can take the regulatory agencies on,” she said, even if it means the city gets sued by the state or developers who believe a clean site will pave the way for residential building.

Countering that view was the minority opinion that, with added mitigations for safety, Alternative Three would be fine.

In fact, it’s the “only viable solution,” said Rene Vercruyssen, who signed the minority opinion along with members Ginger Drake and Tom Fogarty, both of whom own land near the contamination and wish to develop.

“We have an exposed garbage dump,” he said, and by cleaning it up “the city is looking out for short-term and long-term welfare.”

The whole process had been forced into high gear when the state Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup-and-abatement order on June 3, requiring the city to submit a remedial action plan (RAP) by Aug. 4. (The city and other parties have filed an appeal.) But City Manager Tom Lando pointed out that the only way the city can submit a RAP by the deadline is if the council picks Alternative Three. “If we adopt a plan that’s unacceptable, we might as well not adopt a plan and take a different strategy,” he said, alluding to legal action.

Phil Woodward of the RWQCB told the council the city has no choice but to clean up, and, “The majority report does not meet state law and regulations. It is not protective of human health and the environment. It is more of a reactive document: ‘Let’s see what happens and then respond.'”

Councilmembers unsuccessfully tried to get Woodward to promise that the water board would be OK with it if the council missed the Aug. 4 deadline for submitting the RAP. At its regular meeting the next day, the council set the next discussion on the Humboldt Dump for August 26.