Dump plan dumped?

It looks like the 10-year effort to develop a plan to clean up the Humboldt Road Burn Dump is headed back to square one. The issue has proven to be a rich source of public debate over environmental concerns, partisan politics and health issues. (There’s even a reported romance that developed over time between a couple of the players involved.) For three-quarters of a century, at the area just south of Highway 32 where Bruce and Humboldt roads intersect, the county and city operated a burn dump, closing it in 1965 when the Neal Road Landfill opened. There were also as many as eight or nine privately operated dumps in the area, as well as a married couple who lived in a trailer and “recycled” the lead out of car batteries. Fifteen years ago lead contamination and other toxic materials were discovered on a wide swath of the property—up to 160 acres—and the state stepped in and told the city it would have to clean it up.

Property owners, including Tom Fogarty and the late Dan Drake, had plans to develop the land into residential housing, and up until about five years ago there was a coordinated project between the property owners and the city to fund the cleanup together, with the city picking up 85 percent of the cost. More recently the city changed its approach when a more-progressive council, joined by Mayor Maureen Kirk, voted that the city would clean up only the contamination for which it is responsible, including its 10 acres, a parcel now owned by George Scott (the city is negotiating to buy it back), and any privately owned contaminated property for which the owner can prove the city is liable. So far the land owners have responded only with vague threats of litigation but no substantial proof of city responsibility, city officials say. There is some question as to who is responsible for contaminated property owned by Drake’s widow Ginger. That land was polluted when the city hired Baldwin Construction to extend Bruce Road. The operation resulted in contaminated dirt being moved from the city property to the Drake property. It is not clear at this point who’s responsible for that contamination, the city, the construction company or Drake.

Tuesday I called City Manager Tom Lando about another item and in passing asked how the cleanup was coming along. There was a brief silence, which is unusual for Lando. “Well,” he said, “as of Friday of last week, it’s been completely screwed up. We’re back at a point I never thought we’d be at again.” He said the state Department of Toxic Substance Control has told the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency leading the cleanup effort, that it’s been going about it all wrong. Lando, who for the last decade has tried to cobble together a cleanup plan that would satisfy a wide divergence of interests, including property owners, neighbors, environmentalists and the ever-changing members of the City Council, called the development “completely unexpected.” He said that he and Fritz McKinley, the city’s director of public works, are in the process of talking with both agencies and would relay that information to the City Council, “if we can understand what the water board and toxics tells us.” Lando said the city had hoped to get a final cleanup plan approved by the City Council on May 18 and put it into motion on June 3. “Now it looks like the state is making the decisions,” he said. Details of the plan’s apparent undoing will be made public within days, the city manager said.

For weeks rumors were flying about town and the campus of Chico State University that Chico City Councilmember Dan Herbert had cut a check for as much as $1,500 to candidate Adam Dondro, eventual winner of the Associated Student presidential election. This week Herbert told me that he did not write a check during the campaign, but upon reflection after hearing the rumor went ahead and sent Dondro $100 after the election. “I think people take this campaign contribution stuff a little too far,” said Herbert, who’s also said that he doesn’t believe councilmembers should have to verbally disclose in public who their big financial supporters are. “It’s un-American,” he told other councilmembers a few weeks ago.