The fog of dump cleanup

At the May 4 Chico City Council meeting discussion of the Humboldt Burn Dump cleanup, Councilmember Steve Bertagna asked a deceptively simple question: “Does anybody know who’s in charge?”

For 10 years the city, under pressure from the state, has been working to clean up the 157 acres of land in east Chico sandwiched between Highway 32 and Humboldt Road that is contaminated with the residue of years of commercial and residential burn-and-bury trash disposal. For years the city, which owns only about 10 acres of the property, had plans to clean the entire area, including that under private ownership.

Within the last year, however, the city adopted a simpler plan to clean only the toxic areas it was directly responsible for by consolidating and then capping the soil in two separate cells.

But in the last week of April the city received signals from two state agencies involved that the city plan may not be accepted and that the state may well impose its own preferred option.

The state Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), the lead agency in this operation since 1997, told the city a year ago to come up with a remedial-action plan (RAP) and start work by June 1 of this year. After years of meetings, public hearings, letters to the editor, threats and accusations, the city finally adopted a plan, which it would finalize at its May 18 meeting.

The city determined it has four alternatives: do nothing; cart the contaminated soil to a toxic waste site at Kettleman Hills in the San Joaquin Valley; consolidate the toxic soil into one cell and cap it; or gather it into two cells and cap them. The last two options would each cost about $7 million.

The first alternative, preferred by neighbors and some environmentalists, would greatly hinder future development. The second has been deemed prohibitive in cost. The third is the one preferred by both the water board and the Department of Toxic Substance Control but is opposed by neighbors. The fourth is what the city plans to submit to the water board, which can opt for any one of the four.

James Pedri, the representative for the RWQCB, said the city must provide “compelling reasons” for his agency not to adopt plan three and said he doubts the city can do so.

“The less cells the less chance for cell failure,” he said.

Creating two cells, he said, will likely stir up more dust—the neighbors’ greatest fear—than building just one.

“You don’t just cap it in place,” he said. “[The soil] has to be graded and manipulated.”

Pedri said two cells will also mean more truck traffic and “more of a chance of somebody getting killed.”

Chico City Manager Tom Lando said the City Council will most likely adopt alternative four at its May 18 meeting and submit it to the state.

Lando said the city had received mixed signals from Pedri, who told the council the final adoption was the city’s decision. Now that does not seem to be the case, and Lando suspects the DTSC is influencing the water control board. The DTSC in a May 4 letter to Pedri said it had concluded “the most protective and feasible alternative for the cleanup of waste and hazardous substances at the [dump site] is the consolidation and on-site capping in one disposal cell.”

Developer Tom Fogarty, after initially buying in on an earlier plan connected with the city efforts, has gone on his own and already submitted a cleanup plan to the RWQCB, which in June will hold a public meeting to consider the plans.

In the end, all of the involved parties may find themselves in court.