Pipe dream

Radiator shop owner’s polluted property contaminates retirement plans

SIDEWALK SURFIN’ Skateboarders walk past the old Chico Radiator Works on their way to the skateboard park, which adjoins the contaminated piece of land the old shop sits on. The city once considered the small lot an “opportunity buy” that would help expand the park.

SIDEWALK SURFIN’ Skateboarders walk past the old Chico Radiator Works on their way to the skateboard park, which adjoins the contaminated piece of land the old shop sits on. The city once considered the small lot an “opportunity buy” that would help expand the park.

Photo By Tom Angel

Thunder road: Humboldt Avenue was once Chico’s automobile row, with parts shops, mechanics’ garages and service stations lined up along the south side of the street all the way from Park Avenue to Highway 99.

Who says property values in Chico are skyrocketing out of control? Certainly not Daniel Dee Cullison, longtime owner of the now-shuttered Chico Radiator Works on Humboldt Avenue.

About a year ago, Cullison, through his real estate agent, Linda Cruces, approached the city and offered to sell the tenth-of-an-acre property at 387 Humboldt Ave. for $155,000. Cullison was looking to sell the site, which sits just west of the Humboldt Skateboard Park and backs up to Little Chico Creek, to provide income for his retirement.

The city’s General Plan encourages the City Council to purchase creekside greenway whenever feasible. Plus the little lot could be utilized to help expand the skateboard park sometime in the future.

So the city hired North Valley Land Services to appraise the property Cullison had held title on since 1972. He’d actually taken over the radiator business in 1967. Five years ago he leased the business to another man, who closed up shop in October 2001.

The radiator shop itself—actually a corrugated metal barn that was built off site and dragged onto the property—had serviced the radiators of Chico since 1949.

The appraiser’s report said the property was only worth $75,000 and included this ominous warning: “The onsite inspection did not disclose any obvious evidence of presence of contamination or any hazardous or toxic materials. However, the previous business did utilize such materials in their daily operations.”

The report says the shop installed new radiators and cleaned old ones and “may have cleaned automobile fuel tanks.” (In fact, that offer is still painted on the front of the building.)

The report goes on to say that it is assumed the operators disposed of solvents, fuel and radiator fluid in appropriate ways. The building, it said, is in poor condition and would cost $68,000 to rebuild and $25,000 to remodel.

The city, with suspicions the lot might be polluted, then contracted with Hanover Environmental Services to test the soil and water. Hanover inspectors interviewed Cullison, who assured them he’d followed manufacturers’ orders when working with solvents and that there had been no spills, leaks or unauthorized releases on the property.

Still, test results showed “concentrations of metals in the soil and groundwater found to exceed regulatory limits.”

Estimated cleanup costs run from $150,000 to $200,000, well exceeding the property’s value. The expense comes because the metals can leach from the soil, meaning it must be excavated and hauled to a special disposal facility in Nevada.

The city received this dismal report just about the same time it was learning of lead contamination in Upper Bidwell Park around Horseshoe Lake and the old shooting range.

“We said, ‘Wait, we can’t take up this burden when we have to clean up something we already own,'” explained Dennis McLaughlin, the city’s housing officer. “I called [Cullison] and told him we weren’t going to make an offer.”

Cullison was reportedly upset, has been unable to sell the property and recently sold his home to pay for his retirement. His phone number, as listed in the phone book, has been disconnected, and the News & Review was unable to contact him.

“Essentially he was not surprised by the contamination in the soil,” McLaughlin said. “The issue for him was the dramatic nature of it all; sort of like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I think he had a sense that there was a series of events that were out of his control, and he couldn’t believe it could be that bad. If it was that bad, he figured, he’d be dead by now.”

McLaughlin said it makes no sense for the city to purchase the property.

“The question we have to ask is, is there sufficient social benefit that we don’t worry about the expense?”

The city paid the $15,000 for the environmental assessments.

“As he sees it,” McLaughlin said, “we essentially destroyed his ability to sell.”

McLaughlin suggested that determining who pays for the cleanup “comes down to who has the better attorney.”

It is conceivable, he said, that the property and building could be used as a warehouse, as long as it didn’t contribute to the contamination. The state would eventually like to get it cleaned, but at this point it is “not high on the radar screen.”

“It would be good if we could pick it up and clean it,” McLaughlin said. “If we could find some grants to pay for it.”

City Manager Tom Lando said the city was ready to offer Cullison $25,000 to $50,000 for the property, but that the former radiator shop owner was “not at all satisfied” with the proposal.

Lando said the state may not mandate cleanup for another 20 years.

And he predicted, "I think it will be a few more years before [Cullison] reaches the unpleasant reality of ‘whatever you can give me I’ll take.'"