Final rinse

Humboldt Dump cleanup commences amid neighbor concerns, heavy monitoring

MOUND BUILDERS Bulldozers level a pad of ground where a water tank will sit at the old Humboldt Road Burn Dump in east Chico. After 20 years of debate, cleanup of the site began this week. Hank Marsh Junior High sits in the backgroound.

MOUND BUILDERS Bulldozers level a pad of ground where a water tank will sit at the old Humboldt Road Burn Dump in east Chico. After 20 years of debate, cleanup of the site began this week. Hank Marsh Junior High sits in the backgroound.

Photo By Tom Angel

Land deal: The contaminated soil at the old Humboldt Road Burn Dump will be collected into a containment cell on a 10-acre parcel west of Bruce Road. The city purchased the land from John Scott for about $200,000. Toxic soil from land east of Bruce Road will be scooped up and trucked across the road to the same cell for containment.

Two yellow bulldozers, accompanied by two water trucks, prepared to plow tons of contaminated soil into a mound this week as work began on the city-owned property known as the old Humboldt Road Burn Dump.

Located just west of the site of one of Chico’s largest-ever proposed housing developments, the project is being carried out by Performance Excavators out of San Rafael. The idea is to consolidate thousands of cubic yards of toxic soil into a single cell and cover it with an impermeable material, clean soil and vegetation.

After nearly 20 years of debate on how best to clean up the hazardous waste, the City Council finally settled on a plan two years ago. The property was once the site of the county and then city burn dump, where locals went to unload their junk, including appliances, batteries, unused paint cans and other potentially toxic material. The stuff was pushed into a pile and burned, leaving a toxic legacy discovered in the late 1980s, 20 years after dump operations had ceased.

Builder Tom Fogarty pushed the contaminated soil on his and Edmund Johnson’s properties into a containment seal last winter. He is now moving forward with his 1,300-unit Oak Valley project just east of the dump site.

A worker for Performance Excavators, who asked not to be identified, said he’s done hazardous excavation work before and he expected this job to last until mid-October, although a deadline of mid-August has been set, so the potentially dust-stirring work ends before classes resume at Hank Marsh Junior High, which sits about a mile upwind from the site.

Robert McLaughlin works for the Butte County Air Quality Management District, whose task is to monitor the work for high levels of lead-laden dust kicked up while soil is moved for containment. The water from the tank will be used to try to control the dust.

Photo By Tom Angel

Robert McLaughlin, assistant air pollution control officer of the Butte County Air Quality Management District, said his office is overseeing the project and that its charge is to “make sure the public health is protected.”

To that end the district has hired an independent contractor to be on the site every workday to monitor the levels of lead exposed. Ron Vernesoni of ELTERRA Environmental Consulting Services is out of Sedona, Arizona, but is here for the summer, McLaughlin said. Vernesoni’s phone number is 624-0122, and people with concerns and questions can contact him.

Neighbors, including those who live in nearby Stilson Canyon and those across Highway 32 in California Park, the direction the prevailing winds blow, have expressed deep concerns to the city about the dangers of the cleanup work.

The Stilson Canyon folks asked that an alternate route be built to their neighborhood so they would not have to drive past the work site when leaving or coming home. The city denied the request, saying it was unnecessary.

McLaughlin said there are 14 lead-monitoring devices in place, including one mounted on the roof of the junior high gymnasium. He said the results from samples collected by the devices will be posted on a Web site,, but there will be a five-day delay from when the sample is taken and the results are posted.

“We get the results back as fast as we can get them,” he said. “We encourage the public to call us with any questions.”

For 20 years the issue of what to do with the old burn site was pushed around by a variety of Chico City Councils. In 2003, just when it looked like the city would foot the entire bill, Councilman Dan Nguyen-Tan learned that there had actually been a number of private dumps operating close to the city/county dump that had taken in refuge from the early 1900s to the mid-1960s. Landowners were told if they could prove the city had polluted their acres, the city would pay. None did.

Last month the Pleasant Valley Assembly of God church tried to bill the city for its share, $70,000, but was turned down.