River cleanup hits a snag

Removal of illegally dumped Chico State building debris halted

CONCRETE JUNGLE <br> Some of the concrete and other debris found buried in the banks of the Sacramento River last year. Most has been hauled away and properly disposed of, but cleanup still isn’t complete.

Some of the concrete and other debris found buried in the banks of the Sacramento River last year. Most has been hauled away and properly disposed of, but cleanup still isn’t complete.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

About the author:
Tom Gascoyne is a former editor of the CN&R and, more recently, the (now defunct) Chico Beat. He first broke this story in that publication. He currently is a reporter for KCHO’s news department as well as adviser to the Butte College Roadrunner.

Three years after two old buildings on the Chico State University campus were demolished to make way for the new Wildcat Recreation Center, debris from the tear-down that was illegally dumped in the Sacramento River still has not been cleaned up.

Efforts to finish clearing the debris from the river just south of Hamilton City are entangled in a legal web and currently on hold. What’s more, if this legal snafu isn’t straightened out by the end of the month, the work may have to wait until next year because of the river’s upcoming fall salmon run.

This week, when hydrologists hired to oversee the cleanup went out to finish the job, they were chased away, accused of trespassing.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the attorneys from both sides of the case are out of town until next week. But the clock is ticking.

Ironically, the Wildcat Recreation Center, which opened this week, has been certified silver by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for its eco-friendly design and assembly—97 percent of the waste created while constructing the new building was either reused or recycled.

Apparently, the tons and tons of rubble from the buildings razed to make way for the new structure didn’t factor into the certification.

In March 2006 the general contractor working for the university, John F. Otto Inc., hired a local excavator, Thomas Carpenter, to tear down and haul off two 50-year-old warehouses to make way for the new building.

The rubble, 3,200 tons’ worth, ended up dumped along the banks and into the river on property Carpenter owns 10 miles west of Chico.

Carpenter applied for but never received Clean Water Act authorization to discharge materials into the river. He eventually withdrew the permit request. Later that year, according to a press release from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over a period of six months members of the state Department of Fish & Game, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “observed multiple violations of the Clean Water Act” by Carpenter.

The Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge surrounds Carpenter’s property on three sides and he has to cross it to get to his land. So it’s little wonder that refuge employees noticed some of the estimated 60 truckloads of demolished warehouse getting hauled to the river.

In January 2007 the Army Corps ordered Carpenter to stop the dumping and remove the rubble to at least 150 feet from the river. The EPA found concrete, soil and debris in the river and along the bank in violation of the Clean Water Act. It issued an abatement order for Carpenter to develop a restoration plan to remove the material and restore the land to its previous condition. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $32,500 a day, he was warned.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the EPA never forced Carpenter to act. So the county took Carpenter to court, where he faced 11 felony and misdemeanor charges. He agreed to a plea bargain that said that within 90 days a qualified third-party licensed contractor would, at Carpenter’s expense, remove and properly dispose of the construction waste and fill.

“The area shall be returned to the native riparian topography in a form directed by the District Attorney in consultation with the agencies,” the plea bargain stated.

Within 10 days of the entry of the plea, Carpenter was “to provide a secured and bonded construction waste removal contract with a DA-approved and qualified third party licensed contractor or post security in an amount not to exceed $100,000 securing the contracts between Defendant and a DA-approved qualified licensed contractor for the removal and proper disposal of up to 2,000 tons of construction waste and fill from the property …”

Carpenter also pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of water-code violations and was placed on three years’ probation.

John Lane, an environmental scientist hired by the county to help investigate the case, snorkeled the river near the property to see what was below the surface. He reported finding large chunks of cement, including pieces of sidewalk, rebar (the metal rods used to reinforce concrete) and material that may have been asbestos. The debris lay as far as 20 feet into the river and ran along the riverbank as well.

Chico environmental scientist John Lane at a cleanup site in September 2008.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Lane’s company, Chico Environmental, was hired to oversee the cleanup, which began last year. The work could be done only from July to October due to environmental constraints, and because of access problems, Lane’s crews couldn’t finish the job.

When they returned this year to survey the situation, they discovered that during the winter the river’s high flow had uncovered more demolished construction material buried in the riverbanks.

“We knew it was there and that it was not new stuff,” Lane said this week. “This was no surprise.”

There’s no doubt, Lane said, that the matter, which included asphalt, metal and concrete, is part of the original dumping.

“We know it’s the old Chico State buildings because we can ID it by matching up the paint with historic photos of the buildings.”

Lane said he had contacted the attorney for Otto Construction, which is now footing the bill for cleanup, two weeks ago and was told there was no problem.

“But Carpenter has fought us every step of the way,” Lane said. “It’s like banging your head up against a wall.”

Calls to Carpenter’s office were not returned.

Nature itself has also hampered the cleanup efforts. Lane’s crew couldn’t work in the river until June because of the spring salmon run. Then, in June, bank swallows, an endangered species, began nesting on the riverbanks, where they stayed until the beginning of August.

On Aug. 12, Lane and his assistant, Jeff Sanchez, went to the site to begin the final cleanup. That’s when a woman, who said she was Carpenter’s girlfriend, told them they were trespassing and would have to leave. She called the Butte County Sheriff’s Department. But before a deputy could arrive, Lane called Ramsey, who told them to pull off the job.

Ramsey said the attorneys involved, Deputy DA Hal Thomas and James Berglund, who represents Carpenter, “had a handshake agreement” to allow the cleanup to proceed.

Since there was no paperwork confirming the agreement, the work stopped. If they can’t complete the work by the end of August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration may order them to stay out of the water because of the fall salmon run.

They had a greater window of opportunity to work last year, Sanchez said, because the salmon runs were considered to be in healthier condition.

Lane said the experience has been frustrating.

“Last year Carpenter would tell us that what we were doing was not part of the deal,” he said. “But then Hal [Thomas] would get involved [and Carpenter would relent]. We never got chased off before.”

Lane argued that because of the contract Chico Environmental has with the DA’s Office, “We are still acting as an agent for the county. We have permission to monitor and inspect the site.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

While they were able to get the remaining debris out of the water and onto the riverbank, Lane said, they’ve not had a chance to secure the soil in place and form the bank back into a natural slope. And this could spell further environmental degradation when winter comes and the river again runs high.