Majority rules

Council moves ahead with a compromise in the Humboldt Dump cleanup debate

WE THREW IT ALL AWAY <br>These mounds that line the banks of Dead Horse Slough in the old Humboldt Dump are made up of discarded appliances and old paint cans. Their presence over the last 50 to 60 years has created a toxic headache for the city.

These mounds that line the banks of Dead Horse Slough in the old Humboldt Dump are made up of discarded appliances and old paint cans. Their presence over the last 50 to 60 years has created a toxic headache for the city.

Photo By Sara Sipes

In the zone: Parts of the contaminated acreage of the old Humboldt Dump are zoned for residential development, the one condition that is sure to change no matter what cleanup plan is adopted.

The go-slow, step-by-step minimalist plan to clean up the Humboldt Road Burn Dump is now the centerpiece in the seemingly endless process the city’s undergoing to meet the demands and expectations of the state, developers and concerned neighbors.

The so-called Majority Report, named because a majority of an 11-member citizens’ committee adopted it, was for the most part rejected as insufficient two weeks ago by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB).

City staff, meeting with interested parties in the intervening time, tried to fashion a plan that would be supported by consensus. But another citizens’ group made of members of the original committee and other neighbors of the project rejected the plan, labeling it the Lando Plan, after City Manager Tom Lando.

That plan, they charge, is too expensive and mirrors the city-backed Alternative 3, which opponents say favors the landowners who plan to develop the land. The property in question is contaminated as a result of years of dumping and burning on a city dump and at least eight other private dumps that operated through the first half of the 20th century.

Overall, the contamination—from lead and other toxins—is spread across 150 acres. The property owners bought the land and paid for a sewer line, the installation of which helped spread the contaminated soil, for future development. Some of them have threatened to sue the city if the cleanup restricts their ability to build.

The Majority Report plan calls for cleaning up the contaminants in Dead House Slough, changing the existing zoning from residential to open space to eliminate further cleanup, and fencing and posting the area to keep trespassers away.

The land would then be monitored over time to see if further action was needed.

The RWQCB, the lead agency in the project, has said it will sue if the city plan does not comply with state regulations, which would seem to include going beyond what the Majority Report calls for. The state is concerned about contaminants leaching off the property with storm water runoff as well as the exposed areas of contaminated soil.

Neighbors and concerned citizens have hinted they will sue the city if the project threatens the health of students at nearby Hank Marsh Junior High or the folks who live to the north in California Park, the direction the prevailing winds blow with the potential of carrying toxic-laden dust stirred up by the cleanup process.

“We’re not at a consensus,” Lando said, referring to the correspondence the council had received from the neighbors and members of the now-disbanded citizens’ committee.

“The council must decide what [plan] should be analyzed or removed from the project,” Lando said.

Each property owner, including the city, which has about 10 acres, could go on its own in the cleanup process, but the city would lose any authority to dictate conditions if that were to happen. At this point the property owners are acting under a voluntary relationship with the state, which could issue cleanup and abatement orders if it does not see progress.

The council is split on which way to go. The three conservatives, Larry Wahl, Dan Herbert and Steve Bertagna, favor Alternative 3, which calls for consolidating the contaminated soil and capping it with a seal.

“We’ve been dealing with this for 38 years,” said Wahl, noting this council could end up as another in a long line that has failed to fix the problem. Wahl said his mother lives in a retirement building in California Park, but said that done right the cleanup shouldn’t threaten the neighbors.

Bertagna seconded Wahl’s motion to adopt that plan, but it failed 4-3 when only Herbert joined them with a yes vote.

Councilmember Coleen Jarvis said she wanted the city’s hired consultant, Andy Kopania, to work on the Majority Report and massage and refine it so it is acceptable to the state. The state and city, she said, did not give the Majority Report enough study before it was rejected.

“I’m tired of hearing about what the state wants,” she said. “I want the state to hear what we want.”

Councilmember Scott Gruendl echoed Jarvis’ and the citizens’ desires, noting that, in his job as a consultant with Glenn County, he knows the state is not always right.

“I was elected to represent the people of Chico,” he said. “I have no problem taking on the state. I do that in my job every day.

“There is no doubt that we have an obligation to clean the slough, keep trespassers out and protect the citizens who will live near the site. But I don’t believe compacting and capping is the only way to prevent leaching.”

In the end a compromise of sorts was reached, with Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan making a successful motion to have staff and outside legal counsel consider the Majority Report and see if it can be “fleshed out” so that it’s legally defensible before the state. His motion also asked that the plan preferred by Wahl be considered and that both be put into the context of an environmental-impact report, with the second considered the alternate plan.

The matter will be back before the council on Oct. 21. The motion carried 5-2, with Jarvis and Gruendl voting no. The council will also meet in closed session on Oct. 7 to discuss potential litigation and explore ways to break down and share the costs of the project, which has an estimated price varying from $8 million to $20 million.