Swiss firm to clean toxic plume

POISONOUS PLUME<br>The area in red is the plume of contaminated groundwater resulting from solvents improperly disposed of in the 1970s. It is one of eight such plumes in Chico.

The area in red is the plume of contaminated groundwater resulting from solvents improperly disposed of in the 1970s. It is one of eight such plumes in Chico.

When it comes to cleaning up their polluted water supply, residents of the Skyway subdivision off Hegan Lane in south Chico can breathe easier now—much easier. In fact, after years of worrying about the safety of their well water and their property values, they’ve hit the cleanup equivalent of the jackpot.

That’s because, after a lengthy search, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has located a legally responsible party that has agreed to clean up the groundwater under their homes. And that party turns out to be a deep-pocketed international corporation with more than 111,000 employees worldwide and a strong commitment to sustainability.

ABB Inc. is a technology-based provider of power and automation products, systems and services headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. Its U.S. operations, based in Norwalk, Conn., employ some 11,500 people in manufacturing and other facilities.

How this mega-corporation became connected with a plume of contaminated groundwater in south Chico is an interesting tale.

Don Mandel, the DTSC project director in charge of the Skyway cleanup (and several others in Chico), explained that the toxins were first discovered in 1984, when the Knudsen juice operation on Speedway Avenue tested its water well and found it was contaminated with the solvent perchloroethylene (PCE).

Testing showed the toxin hadn’t found its way into the company’s products, Mandel said, and Knudsen put a filter on its pumps to solve the water problem. Unfortunately, the contamination wasn’t reported to the county Department of Environmental Health or DTSC.

Nearly 20 years later, in December 2003, the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board—at the request of residents along Cessna and Skyway avenues who were concerned about possible leakage from the nearby Southern Pacific tank farm—sample tested some of their wells and found 26 of 40 had detectable levels of chlorinated solvents and 10 exceeded safe levels.

Additional testing in 2004 indicated the presence of a plume of contaminated groundwater that was about a half-mile wide and extended from Comanche Creek on the west to the University Farm on the east, following Hegan Lane for two miles.

Since then, the state has installed carbon filters on 63 residential water wells in the area.

A DTSC investigation showed the Knudsen site was the likely source of the toxins. During the 1970s, it had been owned by C-E Building Products, which manufactured aluminum shower enclosures and windows.

DTSC investigators located some former C-E employees, and they acknowledged that the company had used solvents, especially trichloroethylene (TCE) but also PCE, to degrease machine parts. They had disposed of the used solvents in an unlined disposal pit in the ground—"a common practice at the time,” Mandel said.

C-E Building Products was a unit of a larger company called Combustion Engineering, which in 1977 sold the property. In 1990 ABB acquired Combustion Engineering. Although ABB obviously had no role in polluting the groundwater, DTSC has determined that legally it is the “successor of interest” responsible for cleaning it up.

To its credit, the company has not flinched from the prospect. Mandel said it already has agreed to reimburse the state the “almost $1 million” spent so far on cleanup and to complete the job, which could cost even more.

Last week its director of media and community relations, Ron Kurtz, was in Chico, visiting media outlets and other interested parties to let them know that ABB was serious about cleaning up the mess. The site is just one of “seven or eight” so-called “legacy sites” the company has acquired, and it is fastidiously cleaning up all of them.

“The process [in Chico] will take several years to complete,” Kurtz said. ABB has already surveyed Skyway subdivision residents and met with various community leaders, and it is now working with DTSC to prepare a public participation plan. ABB expects to hold public meetings “down the road.”

“The good thing about Chico,” he added, “is that the learning curve is smaller because of the work already done to clean up other local sites.”

Like the residents of the Skyway subdivision, DTSC officials are pleased with ABB’s response. “They’re pretty unusual in my experience when it comes to responsible parties,” Mandel said. “They’re very concerned and they’re standing up to the plate.”

His supervisor in the Sacramento office, Richard Blum, agreed: It’s “a refreshing change.”