The big scrap
After a decade of extensions and objections, Chico Scrap Metal and its opponents brace for a final showdown
Karl Ory could barely contain his anger as he addressed the Chico Planning Commission last Thursday (Feb. 18) during a public hearing regarding whether Chico Scrap Metal should be allowed to continue doing business at its current location on East 20th Street. His voice trembled as he told the panel that—in light of contamination concerns and municipal code changes that deemed the business out of compliance with the area more than a decade ago—it needs to move.
The former Chico mayor ignored commission chair Toni Scott’s order to stop speaking past the three-minute time limit allowed for public comments to spit out his final, harsh appraisal of the business: “Chico Scrap Metal is like a cancer patient in remission. Everything looks like it’s cleared up, but the disease remains.”
Ory’s wasn’t the only passionate address as a parade of speakers—19 in all, with about two-thirds favoring amortization, or moving the business—filed up to the podium. People on both sides of the issue shed tears, with CSM proponents focusing on the importance of the recycling services the metal yard provides and the good character of its owners, the Scott family. CSM’s detractors cited ongoing concerns stemming from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control’s 2007 discovery of contamination at the site, and they argued CSM’s continued presence is holding up efforts to improve the East 20th Street business corridor and the economically challenged Chapman/Mulberry neighborhood.
At one point, the confrontation between factions almost turned physical. When Ory rose from his seat and approached the podium after public comment had ended, a CSM supporter barred his path, bristling as he warned, “Don’t go up there … don’t you dare go up there!”
Chico Scrap Metal has been faced with moving its operations since the early 2000s, when Butte County, followed by the city of Chico, adopted the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan that rezoned the area and required amortization of CSM and several other businesses. In 2006, the city gave the recycler five years to move. In 2011, CSM was granted a three-year extension by the liberal City Council with the caveat that no more extensions be granted. Then last year, after that final deadline expired, the new conservative-majority council sought to halt the amortization process by directing city staff to work with CSM to allow it to stay put. That would require rezoning the property as well as drafting a new development agreement that includes, among other things, aesthetic improvements and operational changes, such as prohibiting on-site baling of vehicles.
The commission’s goal during last week’s meeting was to vet CSM’s proposal to stay put and make a recommendation to the City Council. The city’s planning department recommended that the commission approve it, but when the proverbial dust settled, the panel voted 3-2 (with one member absent and another recused due to a conflict of interest) to reject the proposal and order city planners to draft a negative resolution. The commissioners who voted to uphold amortization said they were unconvinced that CSM poses a toxic risk, but that they couldn’t go against the desires of past councils and community members who put years of work into formulating and implementing the Chapman/Mulberry plan.
According to Community Development Director Mark Wolfe, the new resolution will tentatively be back before the commission at its April 7 meeting. A new vote will be taken, and if the commission approves the negative recommendation, it will advance to the City Council—the panel that ultimately will decide the recycler’s fate.
CSM's struggle to stay on East 20th Street is just one of the Scott family’s ongoing business conflicts over the past decade. The family owns three other local scrap yards—one in Durham and two in Oroville—each of which the DTSC has found to be contaminated. In 2008, CSM founder George Scott Sr. was convicted on criminal pollution charges.
The narrative advanced by the Scotts, who still dispute the DTSC findings, criminal charges and moving order, is that they’ve been victimized by bad science and government overreach. Meanwhile, their opponents contend the business owners are scofflaws who’ve delayed cleanup efforts and defied orders by courts and other government bodies.
CSM is a 2.02-acre patch of land surrounded by a green corrugated metal fence. Within the fence are a number of mismatched buildings on a largely dirt-and-gravel lot, with mechanical equipment and piles of recycleable material stacked and scattered around the property. The business sits on the edge of the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood, and Chapman Elementary School is located a few hundred feet to the northeast.
The business’ incongruity with the area lies at the heart of the efforts to move it. Though the amortization order was handed down by the city in 2006, CSM’s relocation had been called for since the Butte County Board of Supervisors adopted the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan in 2000 (the city adopted it in 2004). That plan changed the area’s primary zoning from light industrial/manufacturing to neighborhood/commercial and required businesses that weren’t compliant with the new zoning to move. The separate adoptions of the plan by county and city were necessary because large portions of the district sit on unincorporated county land, though that is changing with the 2015 adoption of a five-year plan to annex the entire area into the city.
The ongoing purpose of the neighborhood plan is to “preserve and enhance the single-family residential character of the neighborhood core and promote the revitalization of the Chapman/Mulberry neighborhood.” It was developed over several years in the 1990s and is meant to strengthen infrastructure and quality of life for residents of the neighborhood that, historically and presently, ranks among Chico’s poorest.
Kim Scott, manager of the East 20th Street site and the public face of the company for the last several years (founder George Scott Sr. is now 83 years old and works part-time at the family’s Durham facility), is quick to note that the property wasn’t always so out-of-place. During a recent interview, she explained that the scrap yard was on the outskirts of town when the city forced a move to the current site from its former home on Humboldt Avenue in 1983. That move was prompted by fears that its previous location could lead to contamination of nearby Little Chico Creek.
Scott described an idyllic childhood growing up in the scrap metal and auto wrecking industries, searching for treasures among other people’s discarded trash. She characterized CSM as a small family business and said she is proud of what her father—a veteran with a formal education that ended in the eighth grade—has built. She also said that several of the business’ regular customers and neighbors have written letters and publicly expressed their support for CSM staying put (many of those letters were included in the city’s staff report to the Planning Commission).
Scott said that the high cost of securing a new site—she noted three properties she looked at all cost more than $1 million—was the primary obstacle to moving the business. Other concerns developed as time went on.
“I’m just not convinced that us moving is the answer,” she said.
“There’s been a commitment to recycling and helping the environment over the last several years, and I think we’re a major piece of that,” she said. “We see over 100 people a day, on average, coming to recycle, including ordinary people with cans, bottles and other CRV; plumbers bringing brass pipes and other metals; and electricians disposing of wire. Without our service, much of that would end up in the landfill.
“We should be woven into the community,” she continued. “We need to be in the path of travel or I’m not sure your everyday citizen will travel any distance out.”
Scott said proposed upgrades to the facility—including new façades on three buildings, new parking areas, upgraded fencing, landscaping and “urban funk” artwork made from recycled goods—will cost about $100,000. She also said some criticisms of the company have already been assuaged as CSM has implemented operational changes over the last few years. These include changes in hours and upgraded equipment. Additionally, the business moved louder operations away from neighbors and toward East 20th Street and stopped accepting or processing risky materials on-site, such as appliances containing freon and automobiles that have not been drained of fluids. She said there are contingency plans in place to clean up residual fluids that may end up on the property.
Though the current question of whether CSM moves boils down to zoning, Scott addressed concerns about pollution. CSM has long contended that chromium, lead, zinc and other chemicals of concern are at background levels that do not pose health risks to neighbors or employees, as determined from testing done by Lawrence and Associates, a company hired by CSM. Those findings were accepted by the DTSC in 2012 as part of the remedial investigation and feasibility study, which is part of the DTSC’s process for cleanup of contaminated sites.
CSM’s owners also have contended that the DTSC’s initial testing in 2007 was faulty. Scott does agree there is polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)—a known carcinogen—in one little-used corner of the site, but she says those chemicals were left by previous owners who operated auto wrecking yards. The same contaminants were found on the other sites the Scotts own.
“There is nothing, scientifically or anecdotal, that indicates that we pose a threat to our neighbors,” Scott said. “As for the PCBs, we inherited the problem, so we’ve also inherited the responsibility to clean it up.”
The DTSC requires the owners of contaminated sites to submit a removal action workplan (RAW) detailing how they will clean up known contaminants. CSM has submitted several to that agency in the last few years, but none have yet passed muster. The DTSC is currently reviewing the sixth draft of CSM’s RAW, and Scott believes it will be approved in the next 30 to 60 days.
DTSC spokeswoman Abbot Dutton confirmed by email that a revised RAW was submitted in January, and that the agency provided comments on the document and returned it Feb. 8 for revision so it can be approved. When asked if the Scotts have been compliant and timely through the process, she wrote, “In general, yes. It’s important to recognize that the process can be an iterative one, and therefore scheduled activities are sometimes adjusted to accommodate this.”
The latest cleanup plan submitted by CSM is to cover the contaminated area with an impervious concrete cap to contain the chemicals. When contaminated sites are capped, a land-use covenant is placed on the property to ensure proper controls on any future excavations. It also severely limits the site’s future use or development, as digging through the concrete for any type of construction activity would expose the contaminants
“We’re ready to get that done,” Scott said. “Our only frustration is that we’re ready to perform, but we have to go through the process before we’re allowed to.”
However, Scott’s expressed eagerness to comply with the final step of the DTSC’s cleanup order contradicts what is written in the RAW, the executive summary of which reads, “Having conferred with its consultants CSM has been advised that there is no need for remediation or cleanup of any kind at this site. This Removal Action Workplan is prepared to meet a formality required by DTSC and in fact proposes no work to be done because none is necessary based on the results of the extensive investigation conducted under the supervision of DTSC.”
When asked about that wording, Scott said it was based on input from CSM’s consultants, and that its inclusion fulfills an obligation to provide multiple alternative actions asked for by the DTSC. She said CSM will have no problem capping the location if the state agency approves that plan, and that she resents implications that the CSM site is hazardous.
“Certainly, if I felt that we were endangering anyone, that would be a no-brainer, and I’m sure DTSC would’ve taken the same position,” she said. “I was raised in this business and was pregnant twice while I was in the business. My kids have grown up here, and so have my nephews, my grand-nieces and my grand-nephews.
“I know there have been comments that we aren’t concerned about the community, but I am concerned about the community and the kids. But I’m also concerned about our employees, and I think it’s OK to be concerned about ourselves.”
Several supporters who submitted letters and spoke at the Planning Commission meeting reinforced Scott’s position that CSM provides an essential green service. “Their business is a necessity to environmental safekeeping and their location in Chico no doubt helps keep our city and surrounding areas cleaner by providing a convenient location to dispose of metal items and recyclables,” wrote Bob Francis, owner of Bob’s Plumbing Co. “There is no doubt in my mind that the number of discarded items along our creeks and roadways would rise dramatically if the ability to recycle it for a few dollars disappears locally.”
Other CSM supporters argued that asking the recycler to move a second time is bad for local business: “I love these people and want businesses to retain their presence in Chico,” said Bud Caldwell, owner of Northgate Petroleum. “How many years does a business get to stay here?”
There's no love lost between Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and the owners of CSM. His successful prosecution of George Scott Sr. in 2008 for environmental crimes led to a lengthy appeals process and a conspiracy-motivated effort to unseat him in the 2010 election. During a recent interview, Ramsey and Deputy District Attorney Hal Thomas offered some insight into their experience with the scrap metal business.
Ramsey said the investigation of CSM and the Scotts’ three other sites was prompted in 2007 by concerns about Chapman students, who used to use a dirt path adjacent to the east side of the CSM property, as well as an encounter between George Scott Sr. and George Barber, an environmental hazmat analyst for the DA’s office. The attorneys said Barber witnessed Scott dumping truckloads of “shaker waste”—composed of ground-up computer parts and other electronics—at the Ophir Road site.
Ramsey said a subsequent investigation revealed Scott was transferring waste from East 20th Street and other sites to dump at the Ophir Road location. That investigation, conducted in part with the DTSC, revealed contamination on all sites and led to numerous charges against Scott—13 in all, ranging from environmental crimes to criminal contempt.
Scott plea bargained a week before the case went to trial in 2008, pleading no contest to two misdemeanor counts and agreeing to pay $381,000 in investigative and cleanup costs incurred by DTSC, with an additional $500,000 in fines suspended as long as the sites were cleaned up.
However, Scott later appealed his conviction, charging he had inadequate legal defense that didn’t point out problems in the DA’s case and DSTC’s testing. The case has been unsuccessfully appealed twice.
In 2009, Scott and several other businessmen formed the Citizens for Economic Balance, a political action committee that attempted to unseat District Attorney Mike Ramsey and replace him with Sacramento DUI attorney Lance Daniel. The group hired Andrew Coolidge—now a Chico city councilman—as their public relations consultant.
The PAC started a website called DATruthToday.com and took out newspaper ads that alleged Ramsey was prosecuting environmental cases for financial gain rather than punishing polluters. Ramsey said that, since the conviction, CSM’s owners have engaged in “what any reasonable person could call a ‘brush war,’” hiring lawyers and consultants to produce results meant to delay—or altogether overturn—their orders to clean up.
“There’s not a motion that goes by that they don’t contest. Consequently, they still don’t have cleanup done [at all of the sites],” Thomas said.
According to correspondence between the Scotts and the DTSC, the Durham site and Kusel Road site in Oroville have since been capped, as CSM intends to do at the Chico location. For the Ophir Road site, the Scotts have yet to finish an early step in the cleanup process, which is a DTSC order for the owners to identify harmful chemicals there before a RAW can be submitted. That site is of particular concern, the lawyers noted, because of its proximity to the Feather River.
“The Scotts say they’re just honest business people trying to provide a service to the community. Well, fine, then do your service and clean it up, but don’t prevaricate, and don’t try to tell everyone the sky is green when it’s blue,” Ramsey said.
The activist group Move the Junkyard was formed in January 2015, shortly after the City Council directed planning department staff to develop a process for CSM to stay in south Chico. The group is allied with the Butte Environmental Council, which has long supported the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan and CSM’s amortization.
During an interview several days prior to the Planning Commission’s meeting, Move the Junkyard member Ory and Mark Stemen, chairman of BEC’s board of directors, were certain the commission would reject CSM’s new development agreement.
“I think CSM has done a very effective job playing on heartstrings and emotional issues that affect [city] councils, but I think they’ll come up against the Planning Commission and see that’s not what it’s about,” Stemen said.
Stemen’s main point of contention with CSM is its effect on the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan: “We’re 10 years into the plan now and have millions of dollars invested by the city and others. This is an inappropriate zoning use and that can’t be ameliorated. You have Habitat for Humanity who built houses there under the impression that the scrap yard was moving, and they want to build more. But who’s going to want to keep investing and building and moving to that neighborhood if [CSM] continues? What happens to all those investments? Where is the integrity of the process?
“You can’t go backward on something of that scale and magnitude, especially when you have five other businesses that moved when they were asked to,” he said, noting that an asphalt plant, trucking company and furniture refinisher were also made noncompliant.
“It’s not fair to them, to the neighbors, or to anybody else … this one business is obstinate, and [if the city approves CSM’s proposals], they’re going to be rewarded for that,” he said. “That’s just setting a terrible precedent.”
Regarding contamination, Stemen said, “From my perspective, that was settled 10 years ago. The whole point in not allowing them to stay [when the plan passed] is because it’s been well-proven that it’s incompatible and inappropriate to have that type of activity happening in a residential neighborhood, and near schools, because you can’t safely do that type of work there. It’s just not possible.”
Ory noted he was part of the effort to move the business the first time, back in 1983. He said he’d be happy if the Scotts didn’t move at all, as long as the scrap yard is shut down.
Stemen echoed him: “If they won’t move, then let them find a better use,” he said. “I’d be perfectly happy with the Scott Family Bistro. Or open a coffee shop, whatever … just move the junkyard.”
Though Stemen and Ory's predictions about the Planning Commission’s ruling proved correct, they are less confident in the City Council following suit, judging from its members’ political persuasions, past actions involving CSM, and the council’s susceptibility to emotional arguments.
In a follow-up interview after the Planning Commission’s decision, Kim Scott said she was disappointed in the commission’s ruling in light of CSM’s compliance with directions from the latest council: “I hope the city will continue to support our new development agreement, because it’s what we were told to do,” she said. “You can’t vote to tell us to do something, and then vote a different way after we comply with those directions.”
She did report feeling some vindication in opinions expressed by some commissioners before casting their vote. “It was clear the commissioners recognized we don’t pose a health risk and aren’t harming the students at Chapman, our neighbors, our employees or ourselves,” she said.
And, just as CSM’s detractors have argued the current City Council’s attempts to negotiate with the recycler to stay were based on a lack of institutional knowledge about the Chapman/Mulberry Neighborhood Plan and past decisions, Scott charged the company’s woes result from deeper lack of historical understanding. Her words retained a touch of the Scott family’s defiance and previewed what might be the grounds for future arguments if the City Council ultimately tries to enforce amortization.
“I’m not sure everyone is aware of the history before 2004,” she said. “We were lawfully put here, and lawfully operating before pieces were put into place without our involvement,” she said, claiming CSM’s owners believed they were grandfathered into the location and would not be subject to zoning changes. “That’s what’s led to them trying to take our property, and that’s wrong.”