Legal scrap over?

Court rules on fight between DA and local business

The owners of Chico Scrap Metal vow to continue to fight legal charges against the company.

The owners of Chico Scrap Metal vow to continue to fight legal charges against the company.

photo by tom gascoyne

An ongoing legal battle between George Scott Sr., owner of Chico Scrap Metal Inc., and the Butte County District Attorney’s Office took a turn in federal court Jan. 17 that may signal the fight is over.

The matter goes back to 2008, when District Attorney Mike Ramsey filed charges against Scott for disposal of waste at an unauthorized facility and knowingly violating environmental safety laws.

Chico Scrap Metal owns four scrap-metal sites in Butte County, including the one in Chico on East 20th Street where soil tests on the site conducted by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) in 2007 revealed contamination in the form of chromium, lead and zinc, as well as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).

Ramsey filed criminal charges against the company for failing to adhere to the DTSC’s order to clean up the site. The company’s owners, which include Scott’s grown children, pled no contest in Butte County Superior Court to two of the charges and were fined $700,000 by Judge Sandra McLean—$500,000 of which was to be used for cleanup—placed on five years probation, and ordered to comply with the cleanup directive.

The owners argued they had received inadequate legal representation and appealed their case to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, where they were represented by Bay Area attorney Therese Cannata.

Cannata, according to court documents, argued the real motivation behind DTSC and the DA’s office in this case was financial gain, not public safety.

“Plaintiffs allege that the investigation was not intended to enforce California hazardous-waste laws, but that the investigation was instead intended to produce revenue for DTSC and Defendants,” the court documents say.

In November 2011, that court upheld the ruling against Chico Scrap Metal, which then appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where it remained dormant until it was assigned to a three-judge panel last week. The appeal was dismissed on Friday, Jan. 17.

DA Ramsey said Scott had a five-year extension to clean up the sites, but that the extension expired last year.

“Now it is up to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to monitor the cleanup,” he said. “The DTSC, I believe, was a little reticent when they were being sued, but now that this is done, they can move forward.”

But Ramsey remains a bit pessimistic.

“Sometimes pushing a state bureaucracy can be a bit like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill,” he said. “But it’s important for the safety of the community, and from our standpoint, it’s back to DTSC and saying, ‘What are you folks doing?’”

Ramsey argues that if Scott had spent the money on the cleanup of his properties rather than legal costs, he and the community would be better off today.

“Quite frankly, the law was fairly clear in this area,” he said, “but if you’ve got enough money and passion, you can keep it going for a long time.”

In a statement sent to the Chico News & Review by Cannata’s legal office just before press time, the Scott family vowed to continue the fight.

“What’s important is that everything we have been saying is now backed by science, and the DTSC supervised investigation of our scrap-metal recycling yards,” Scott’s daughter Kim is quoted as saying in the statement. “There was never and is not now hazardous waste on our property.”

The cleanup is slated for all four sites—the one in Chico, one in Durham and two in Oroville, including one at the Highway 70 Industrial Park, which has a history of environmental problems dating back to the 1980s and includes three federal Superfund sites.

In October 2011, the Chico City Council gave Chico Scrap Metal a three-year extension to remain at its East 20th Street location. That decision came five years after the owners were told the business would have to move by the end of 2011 because of the Chapman/ Mulberry Neighborhood Plan rezone to change the area from light industrial manufacturing to a neighborhood/commercial district.