For toxic site, no money means no cleanup

Man who pleaded guilty to illegal burning faces jail time, but what will happen to the land?

GLOVES, PLEASE <br>An environmental worker takes samples from a burn pile on Guy Schwellenbach’s Cohasset property April 1, 2008.

An environmental worker takes samples from a burn pile on Guy Schwellenbach’s Cohasset property April 1, 2008.

Photo courtesy of district attorney’s office

It’s been a little more than a year since Guy Schwellenbach, rather than disposing of his mess properly, decided to light a bonfire and watch it burn. Trailers, one with a meth lab inside, and all manner of other solid-waste debris were simply left to smolder, sending toxic fumes into the air and chemicals into the earth.

Schwellenbach will be in court today (July 16) for sentencing. He pleaded guilty to two counts of health and safety violations—misdemeanors—and likely will spend about 60 days in jail for his mistakes. But, because Schwellenbach is broke, as is the lien-holder on the property, his ex-girlfriend, the cleanup process deemed appropriate likely will never happen.

“He’ll be ordered to cooperate with the cleanup and open his property to inspection,” said Special Deputy District Attorney Harold Thomas, the prosecutor on the case. “But there’s no money, so we’re all kind of stuck.”

Schwellenbach’s property spans 19 acres in the densely wooded town of Cohasset. The CN&R learned of his illegal burning through his neighbors Ruth and Scott Ryderberg shortly after April 1, 2008, the date of his last documented burn.

The Rydbergs had had a particularly difficult couple of months when we caught up with them. Ruth had suffered insomnia and what she believed to be heavy-metal poisoning after a trailer on Schwellenbach’s property, which had contained a meth lab, was bulldozed and lit on fire. That was the day after Valentine’s Day. More than a month without sleep sent Ruth to stay with relatives and friends and, around the first of April, she decided it was time she came home.

But, almost en route, her son warned her to stay away when he noticed another bulldozed trailer with leaping flames. He also telephoned Butte County Environmental Health, the Air Quality Management District and the sheriff’s office.

“We had cited him five times for at least five different burns,” said Bob McLaughlin, assistant air-pollution control officer for AQMD. “Any time you burn a mobile home, depending on what’s in it, you probably have plastics, linoleum, dioxins, asbestos. There are a lot of reasons why you don’t want to burn anything other than dry vegetation. Toxic air contaminants are a threat to public health.”

The Rydbergs also alleged they’d seen Schwellenbach bury large objects, like vehicles, on his property. McLaughlin acknowledged this but said neither his agency nor Environmental Health had the resources to test his entire property for such contamination.

“We suspect that there’s a lot of stuff out there that got buried,” McLaughlin said, adding by way of analogy, “I go fishing—and there are a lot of big fish out there, but I don’t always catch them.”

“We had evidence of illegal dumping of fuel on the ground,” explained Vance Severin, deputy director of Environmental Health. His agency took samples of water from the ponds on his property—there’s a creek that runs through it and down into Chico—as well as from wells down-gradient from there. They did not find high levels of contamination in the water, said Severin, who characterized the site as “fairly appalling.”

In May 2007, there had been a raid on Schwellenbach’s property, which resulted in four arrests and the seizure of 100 marijuana plants. The cops also found a closed-up methamphetamine lab inside one of the trailers—the one closest to the Rydberg’s home—and Schwellenbach was ordered to clean it up.

“I didn’t do it the right way,” Schwellenbach acknowledged outside the Butte County Superior Courthouse last month. “How is anybody ever going to clean up property in Cohasset? We haven’t had garbage service in god knows how long. And people have been dumping on this property for years.”

There may be some truth to that. Shortly after the Rydbergs’ story appeared in this paper last year, a man who used to live on the property—before Schwellenbach bought it—offered stories of buried cars, buses, trash. He preferred to remain anonymous, but said he wouldn’t even be surprised if there were bodies buried up there.

We may never know.

Schwellenbach now lives in Chico. He told the CN&R that he would agree to clean up the property, but, as Thomas said, “You certainly can require them to clean things up—that will be part of the probation. But you can’t expect a cleanup if they don’t have any money.”

Thomas, an environmental attorney, acknowledges this is a problem. But while Schwellenbach’s is not the worst case of toxic contamination he’s seen, it’s “pretty bad. And part of the problem is that we don’t even know how bad it is.”

Environmental Health and AQMD have done what they can—issued citations, tested the contamination, offered their information to the District Attorney’s Office. Now it’s up to Schwellenbach, and the lien-holder, Shirly Oakly. Since the charges are just misdemeanors, there will be no probation officer to monitor progress.

“There are not a lot of resources for cleanup,” Thomas said. “This is not an unusual outcome given the fact that the parties don’t have any assets.”

In fact, Thomas will be lucky if he gets the jail time—that’s not something ordinarily sentenced in environmental crimes. “In the absence of assets, you can either punish the person or let them off,” he said.

“This is a problem without an obvious solution.”