Cleanup order shifts burn dump committee into high gear
Members of the citizens’ committee that has been pondering ways to clean up the Humboldt Road Burn Dump knew they would have to come up with a recommendation for the Chico City Council. They just didn’t know they would have to do it this soon.
On June 3, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board sent the city a cleanup-and-abatement order, letting it know in no uncertain terms that a remedial-action plan must be submitted to the state by Aug. 4 and cleanup must start by June 1, 2004, or Chico could face fines of $5,000 a day.
Several committee members felt blindsided by the order, believing that the end result would be to force the city’s hand to what staff, the council majority and the state wanted to do all along: consolidate the contaminated soil in one area and put a cap on it.
“I’m outraged that the order came down when it did,” Chairwoman Susan Minasian said at a June 10 special meeting of the council-appointed Humboldt Road Burn Dump Committee. “Simply by going with these deadlines they remove several options.”
But Phil Woodward of the RWQCB denied there were any motives to the order other than to remind the city the deadline was approaching. “There were no surprises here,” he said. “This order did not undermine your authority at all.”
If that’s the case, wondered member Greg Steel, why didn’t Woodward give the committee a heads-up that the order was coming? “You sat there in each of those meetings and never said a thing.”
“I was shot down in those meetings,” snapped back Woodward, who was met with groans of disagreement.
The city has been working since the mid-1980s on a plan to clean up the site. In December 2002 the council asked the RWQCB for an extra six months so the committee could study the health effects of a cleanup and identify other approaches to the problem, such as consolidating and capping (with concrete or clay) the soil in several locations instead of one, or trucking it to a hazardous waste site on Kettleman Mountain. The entire project as currently conceived could cost $25 million.
The area, bordered by Bruce and Humboldt roads not far from Marsh Junior High School and California Park, had been used by the city and county as a burn dump from the late 1800s through 1965. The soil is contaminated by a variety of toxins, most notably lead, which some residents fear could endanger health if stirred up during a cleanup project. The dump sits near a large parcel of land owned by Tom Fogarty—a member of the committee—who plans a large housing development there.
“I can’t help but feel that it was done to intimidate us,” said Valerie Schmidt, who represents the Johnson family, which has chosen to clean up its land alone rather than take part in the city-led project because the family finds it too bureaucratic and expensive.
Woodward told the committee the RWQCB wrote the order largely because some parties were “waffling, saying, ‘We won’t clean up without an order,'” In an interview the day before the meeting, he added that, “The landowners are getting antsy. They want to be able to develop their land.” Woodward conceded at the meeting that he would be supportive if the city asked the RWCQB for a little additional time—no more than a month.
In an interview before the meeting, City Manager Tom Lando indicated that he would do just that. He said it was “unfortunate and a surprise” that the RWQCB issued the order when it did, but, “I know they’re aware of the extraordinary efforts we’ve made.”
Committee members also debated how to make sure the City Council doesn’t overlook the fact that it has only 30 days from the receipt of the order to petition to review (contest elements of) it or be forced to accept it as-is. Jody Sparks, who has been hired from the Toxics Assessment Group to help the city, said that if the city acts fast, it could at least add health-protecting conditions to the cleanup project.
The committee ultimately decided to hand-deliver letters to councilmembers and follow up by briefly addressing the council at its June 17 meeting. The committee’s findings were scheduled to be heard in August, but since that’s now past the deadline, June 17 could be its last chance to be heard.
A couple of members are fine with the city-backed “Alternative Three,” the capping plan identified through a feasibility study. But others aren’t sure where they’ll stand at the end of the day.
Committee member Barbara Vlamis, who is executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, suggested that the city proceed with its own, limited cleanup plan and leave each identified “responsible party” (which includes private property owners) to clean up after itself and foot the bill. Woodward said that would be “a permitting and logistical nightmare.”
While some members felt rushed, others such as Fogarty felt it was time to get on with it. “I just feel like we’re spinning our wheels. But maybe I’m impatient.”
Woodward later acknowledged that if the committee wants to recommend a cleanup plan other than Alternative Three, “you probably couldn’t do it by this date.”
At this point, several committee members don’t feel much trust toward the water board.
“We were having good faith, moving forward,” said member Julie Nasr.
Now, assessed Minasian, “the city has been placed in a more adversarial position.”
The committee will meet again on June 19 at 4 p.m.