Chico State project reveals huge, decades-old underground storage tank
A 32-foot-long underground metal tank containing an unknown substance was revealed last week by Chico State University workers in a former PG&E yard that now houses the school’s Facilities and Maintenance Services.
Buried four feet deep, it could be either a standard storage tank or a railroad car tank apparently buried decades ago, about 100 feet from Big Chico Creek.
Tests have yet to discover if the tank’s contents are toxic, or if they have seeped into the surrounding soil. If this has happened, a cleanup could be expensive, disruptive and time-consuming.
“We have taken samples and sent them to a lab in Redding,” said Ken Sator, Chico State’s director of environmental management, health and safety, who expected results on the samples Oct. 8, after the News & Review’s deadline.
“Whatever it is has not posed a health hazard,” Sator asserted, adding that the tank has been “basically capped” by the presence of asphalt. “It’s one of those things that you find and you just have to deal with it.”
Sator said the vertical pipe that normally would have covered the top of such a tank was absent, and instead the opening was covered with a 12-by-14-inch piece of steel. He said he could see liquid, a lot of which appeared to be water, with a quarter-inch-thick black film on it.
There had been rumors around campus that there was a tank or railroad car there, but recent maps didn’t indicate its presence. As the time for scheduled trench work neared, Facilties and Management Services (FMS) staff pulled out a 1926 PG&E map that indicates, with a dotted line, a “waste oil tank” between what at the time was a warehouse/appliance shop and a transformer platform/transformer shop.
The proximity of the tank to the former transformer shop raises concerns that the tank could conceivably contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are designated as a likely carcinogen by federal agencies and have been linked to skin conditions in adults and neurological and immunological changes in children, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They also cause cancer and liver damage in animals. Once used as coolants and lubricants in transformers and other electrical equipment, PCBs were found to build up in the environment in harmful ways and their production was stopped in 1977.
As to whether the tank could contain PCBs, Sator said, “I guess anything is possible. Thirty years ago people sometimes did things that were more convenient than practical. … Nothing surprises me. If it goes bad, it usually goes way bad.”
The tank was discovered after contractors working on the Technology Infrastructure Initiative (TII) project, which is wiring the entire campus for telecommunications and networking, marked the FMS yard for trenching.
“We thought that to be on the safe side we’d better see if there was a tank here,” said Glennda Morse, Chico State’s director of facilities management and services. “We had always been planning on checking it out. Everyone who works here knows there might have been something in the ground and we would look for it then.” She said there was no reason to go digging for a tank without being sure it was there.
The conduit trench was mapped to have been dug directly through the width of the tank, but the university had not yet signed off on that portion of the project. “They hadn’t been given approval to work there. They were getting ahead of themselves,” Morse said. Now, the conduit will likely be rerouted through the building.
Officials from Mallcraft, the contractor for the TII project, declined comment but indicated they have been made aware of the tank issue.
University officials contacted the Butte County Department of Health, which inspected the exposed tank and then granted the request by FMS to cover it up again to keep out possible rain until the issue can be dealt with. Morse said that will probably be in January, as, “It’s not an emergency situation.”
“We are going to require them to do a preliminary site assessment,” said Leslie Roberts, an environmental health specialist with Butte County. She said the contents of the tank will likely determine how big of a problem it is. “I hope it’s much simpler than it could be,” she said.
The university has already contacted an engineering firm to perhaps head up remediation. If the tank must be removed, the project would go out to bid, Morse said.
There are many federal regulations governing how underground storage tanks are dealt with. “On single-walled tanks you have to go ahead and get it out of there,” Sator said.
Ron Baker, spokesman for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said it sounds like the university and county are doing the right things at this point and his agency won’t be getting involved.
“I would advise not to do too much speculation as to what the contents of the tank might be,” Baker said. “We work on a lot of PG&E facilities, and I have yet to see one where they poured all their transformer oil into a railroad car. It could be something very benign. It could be dirt.”
The university isn’t sure that it was PG&E that buried the tank there. The university bought the land around the 1950s.
Lisa Randle, local spokesperson for PG&E, said the land is unrelated to the PG&E gas plant that operated at nearby Second and Cherry streets. That property is on the federal list of Superfund sites, contaminated but not under any orders to be cleaned up.
Randle couldn’t speculate as to whether PG&E disposed of anything underground back then, or if so what it might have been. Usually, she said, underground tanks held gas or oil.
“When the sale took place, we would have been following whatever rules and regulations were in place at that time."