Leaden landscape

Plan to clean up Humboldt Burn dump a touchy issue

DON’T BE LED ASTRAY <br>A sign wards off trespassers at a contaminated area of the old burn dump near Humboldt Road. The area is frequented by bottle collectors, illicit trash dumpers and the homeless.

A sign wards off trespassers at a contaminated area of the old burn dump near Humboldt Road. The area is frequented by bottle collectors, illicit trash dumpers and the homeless.

Photo by Josh Indar

History of pollution: Use of the Humboldt Road burn dump goes back to the 1890s, when Chico salvage companies, many under city contract, began taking solid waste to various places on the site to be burned and the ashes buried. In 1965, the dump was closed, and the Neal Road landfill took over as the city’s main dump site, leaving the Humboldt Road site a polluted no man’s land.

Walk a few paces from the pockmarked, one-lane road, and you’ll find yourself in what looks like a deserted wild land. It’s the kind of place where a pre-teen suburbanite might go to try out a new slingshot, or a spot where his older brother might park at night with a favorite companion and a six-pack of Hamm’s.

High-voltage lines crackle overhead, and birds chirp from their barbed-wire perches. Along Humboldt Road, piles of illegally dumped trash, rotting old couches and broken TVs destroy the oak-dotted serenity of the landscape. Some days, scavengers kick through exposed piles of pottery looking for collectible glass bottles and other small antiques.

Equal parts charred wasteland and scenic detour, the former site of the Humboldt Road burn dump holds what to most Chicoans is something of an open secret. Lurking just a few feet under the topsoil is a highly toxic cocktail of dirt and debris that in some parts is said to be composed of up to 21 percent lead. The burn dump has become an old story in Chico, one brought to a head by the intensifying fight over the few last developable pieces of land within the city’s sphere of influence.

The owners of the 157-acre site (only about 30 acres of the land is considered polluted) would like to see the land cleaned up so they can build housing in the area. The city has volunteered to do so and will even pay the $8 million it will cost. But do the neighbors want to get the lead out? Not a chance. They’re afraid the city’s cleanup plans will make the problem worse by kicking up clouds of toxic dust that could settle on nearby homes and schools.

The cleanup option preferred by the city involves digging a pit in the most heavily contaminated part of the old dump and then scraping the top few feet of earth from the rest of the site and pushing it into the pit. Engineers would then install a supposedly impermeable barrier to keep the contaminated soil away from people and groundwater.

What scares neighbors the most about the plan is the possibility that lead-laden dust from the project will ride the prevailing winds, settling over the California Park and Little Chico Creek Estates neighborhoods and Hank Marsh Junior High and Little Chico Creek Elementary schools, all located within a mile—some within a few hundred feet—of the dump.

Lead, an element that does not decompose or break down, is especially harmful to children and the elderly. Its presence in the blood at tiny levels—most often measured in micrograms per deciliter—has been linked to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures and, in high concentrations, death.

Other cleanup options include removing all the contaminated dirt—a mammoth project that could cost $131 million and would involve a much higher risk to the community—and taking it to a hazardous-waste dump; capping the entire area as it sits with concrete or clay; or just cleaning up the small portion of waste that is in danger of leaking into Dead Horse Slough, which runs through the property and eventually drains to Big Chico Creek. That portion of the cleanup has already been mandated by the state.

The lead agency in the project, the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board, is in favor of consolidating and capping the contaminated soil on-site. Phil Woodward, the board’s senior engineering geologist, has worked on the dump project for 14 years. He says there is very little chance anyone in the surrounding neighborhood will be affected by the cleanup if it is done the way his board recommends.

“As part of looking at which recommended option is best, we have to look at the risk to human health,” Woodward said. “A determination was made and has been reviewed by [the California Toxic Substances Control Board] that this option can be carried out without negative health consequences to the surrounding community.”

Woodward also says the studies intentionally overestimated exposure levels for nearby residents, assuming they will be outside 24 hours a day for the entire seven months the project will take to complete.

But some neighbors and activists say they simply have no faith in the studies and accuse the city of bending over backwards to appease the dump site’s owners, a handful of influential developers.

Much of the land was bought in 1994 by Yuba City developer Tom Fogarty, whose application to build a sprawling subdivision between Humboldt Road and Highway 32 has already been approved. Chico City Manager Tom Lando has said that, while no housing will be built over contaminated land, it is possible that a parking lot or other comparable structure may be built there.

When contacted for comment, Fogarty declined to comment, saying he had been misquoted by the press in the past.

Scott Gruendl, who recently won his bid for a seat on the City Council, after three earlier, unsuccessful attempts, used the dump issue heavily in his campaign, playing on anti-developer sentiment and the very real fear neighborhood residents have of their children being exposed to lead during the cleanup. Part of his effort involved distributing a flyer that suggests the city “let sleeping dogs lie” and simply leave the dump site as is, toxic dirt and all.

“Why should we spend $8 million to clean up this property to the benefit of a few developers, who will then build homes on remediated land, exposing the city to a lawsuit?” Gruendl asked. “And who wants to buy a half-million-dollar home on contaminated land?”

Gruendl also disputed the city’s assertion that it is being forced by the state to clean up the site. In reality, the city is undergoing the process voluntarily, but with the knowledge that if it abandons the process, the state will almost certainly step in to order the cleanup anyway.

With Gruendl’s election to the council, the impetus to clean up the dump will almost certainly fade, as the new council majority falls more on the environmentalist side of the spectrum. Gruendl said he wants to keep the area as open space, if possible, and will push for deed restrictions and rezoning for the site to make it harder for housing to be built there.

But even Gruendl admits that his is only a partial solution.

“No matter which way you slice this issue, there will always be a problem there," he said.