Name your poison

Just how polluted is the rail-yard redevelopment goldmine?

The good old days: Retirement party for two pensioners, Car Shop, 1947.

The good old days: Retirement party for two pensioners, Car Shop, 1947.

Courtesy Of California State Railroad Museum

Size matters. Stroll through the downtown Sacamento rail yard and red-brick behemoths loom overhead, forgotten relics of a bygone industrial age. Here, more than a century ago, rough-hewn European immigrants toiled like Egyptian slaves to realize the vision of their era’s Pharaohs, the railroad barons who gazed across the landscape and saw not pyramids but a continent to conquer.

The faint odor of diesel fuel and creosote permeates the air.

Today, Sacramento’s civic leaders envision a new empire rising from the ashes of what was once the largest industrial site on the West Coast. Among the seven red-brick and corrugated-steel buildings left standing, now known as the “central shops,” they see teeming throngs of affluent shoppers eager to part with disposable income. In the near distance, a steel, glass and concrete coliseum completes the vision—a state-of-the-art sports arena where the gladiators of our age, the professional athletes of the NBA, engage in combat that, if not quite as mortal as their ancient counterparts, is of no less societal import.

This ambitious vision of competition and commerce has persisted for more than two decades. On Tuesday, November 7, Sacramento’s citizens once again will be given a chance to breathe it into life when they decide whether to provide up to $600 million in public funds to build a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. Local politicians hope the stadium will jump-start the long-stalled renovation of the rail yard, a 240-acre tract that is the largest piece of undeveloped urban real estate in the country.

Of course, there are many problems with this vision, not the least of which is this: The downtown Sacramento rail yard is one of the most polluted properties in the state of California.

Risky business
Nearly 150 years of heavy industrial abuse have transformed what was pristine valley floor two short centuries ago into a blighted, toxic wasteland. How polluted is the rail yard? Name your poison. Literally dozens of hazardous chemicals and compounds contaminate the soil and the groundwater beneath it: arsenic, benzene, lead, tetrachloroethylene, diesel, gas, motor oil, acetone, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene, asbestos.

Today, when the wind kicks up a little too much dust, the few workers left at the site go home rather than risk breathing lead into their lungs. “The only occasional concern is that when it gets really windy, you have the potential for dust to get airborne,” says Paul Hammond, marketing director of California State Railroad Museum located in Old Sacramento, a stone’s throw away from the rail yard’s western boundary. A half-dozen museum workers use one of the old buildings to refurbish historic locomotives. “We’ve had days when we couldn’t work over there,” he says.

Beneath the rail yard, a plume of contaminated groundwater a half-mile wide spreads out under the city like smoke from a fire, from north B Street all the way to the Capitol and beyond. Special pumps purge 400,000 gallons of polluted water per day, but state officials overseeing the aquifer’s cleanup can’t estimate when it will be completed; it may take decades or even longer.

While the politicians and planners pushing the proposed project are loathe to admit it, contamination at the site remains a significant roadblock to redevelopment. Union Pacific, which owns the land, has attempted to sell it for more than a decade. Georgia-based developer Thomas Enterprises is in the process of purchasing it, but the deal has languished in escrow for more than a year, in part because the two parties can’t agree on transferring responsibility for the cleanup.

When asked if pollution at the site continues to delay its sale, Paul Carpenter, the official of state Department of Toxic Substances Control overseeing the cleanup, acknowledged that it is.

“My understanding is yes,” he says. “The negotiation of the potential transfer of any liability, we have a stake in that. We’re required by law to assure that whoever assumes control of the property has the financial means to continue the cleanup.”

Suheil Totah, supervisor of the project for Thomas Enterprises, would not comment on the ongoing negotiations with Union Pacific other than to say that Thomas Enterprises would be assuming responsibility for the cleanup as part of the transfer of the property.

Mark Davis, a regional spokesman for Union Pacific, declined to comment on the negotiations.

In September, negotiations for an arena deal between Sacramento and the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings, broke down in part because ownership of the downtown rail yard remains in limbo, according to the Sacramento Bee. One of the main reasons it remains in limbo is the scale of the site’s cleanup. Size matters, and the final bill will be enormous. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent so far, with no end in sight. It’s not the kind of financial risk anyone takes on lightly.

Toxic legacy
“For generations in this town, if you scratched a Sacramentan, you found a railroader,” explains Walter Gray, former director of the California State Railroad Museum. Gray, now chief of archeology, history and museums for California State Parks, worked at the museum for 20 years and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Sacramento’s rich railroading history.

Safety sign outside a car shop.

Photo By Larry Dalton

That history dates to the Gold Rush, but really took off in 1863 when Leland Stanford broke ground for the western arm of the transcontinental railroad at the foot of K Street. Because supplies from back east had to come overland by wagon or around Cape Horn by ship—journeys that were prohibitively expensive—the owners of the Central Pacific Railroad attempted to build virtually everything the railroad needed, from pencil sharpeners to entire locomotives, in Sacramento. By the turn of the century, the rail yard bustled with more than 200 separate shops, foundries and mills.

“Every industrial process available in the 19th century was performed at the rail yard,” Gray says. “If you couldn’t fix it in Sacramento, you either didn’t need it or you needed to build the capacity to repair it.”

The industrial output of the rail yard was truly staggering by any standard. In his 1948 memoir, rail-yard worker David Joslyn recounted an abbreviated list of items manufactured in the shops:

“Street cars were built there, cable cars from San Francisco’s steep hills. Palatial private cars, dining cars, observation cars, day coaches … ferry boats, including boilers and machinery, river steamers, deep well pumps, turn tables, bridges, both wood and steel, bolts, nuts, spikes, switches and switch stands, lamps and lanterns of every description, tinware, cooking utensils, stoves and ranges, wood and iron working machinery, steam hammers, water treating plants, castings of brass, iron, monel, copper, aluminum, steel and bronze.”

As Gray puts it, the shops “produced a lot of a product. But they also produced a lot of byproduct, what we call toxic waste today.” Environmental regulations were unheard of at the time. “In the 19th century, when you had some nasty crap you wanted to get rid of, you dumped it into a hole.”

Battery acid, scrap iron, fuel oil. Down the hole. Paint thinner, rust inhibitor, metal shavings. Down the hole. Anthracene, chrysene, fluorene, pyrene, toluene, xylene. Down the hole.

“It wasn’t that they were evil,” Gray says. “They were ignorant, lacking knowledge.” That ignorance continued into the 1980s—at the time, used battery acid still was poured into unlined pits—until the state finally forced Southern Pacific, which then owned the yard, to clean up the entire property. Since then, just 37 of the site’s 240 acres have been certified clean and safe for development by the DTSC. Environmental Resources Management has been contracted by Union Pacific to conduct the cleanup.

“In the last 10 years, they’ve removed 500,000 tons of dirt, which included everything form lead and solvents to fuel and asbestos,” Davis says. “We probably have about two more years of soil removal. In 1995, they started an extraction system to pull most of the solvents and any fuel that may have leeched into ground and the groundwater. That system recovers 100 gallons per minute; it’s been doing that for the past 11 years. We probably have several decades of groundwater cleanup to do. With the sale, there is an insurance policy that will continue the cleanup no matter what.”

A few portions of the site were less polluted than others and already have been redeveloped.

“The federal courthouse now sits on a parcel of the Sacramento Station that was divided off pretty early, in the mid-1990s,” Carpenter says. “It was expedited through the cleanup and certification process. About five years ago, the extension of the 7th Street corridor went through part of the lagoon area. The footprints of these developments were put through the complete process on an expedited basis.”

Still, most of the rail yard has not been certified for development, including the oft-mentioned 37-acre parcel where the proposed sports arena has been sited. Asked if it was accurate to say the parcel was clean, as various public officials and news reports have stated, Carpenter replies, “Well, it’s not inaccurate. One of the ways they can potentially mediate the sight is that they can encapsulate soil that’s still impacted at a certain level to ensure that there’s no contact with people on the sight.”

Railroading development
“Capping,” with asphalt, concrete or a special synthetic membrane, is the solution of choice for the contaminated rail-yard soil that hasn’t been hauled away. Theoretically, bulldozing the entire site flat and paving it over might be the easiest way to clean and certify it for redevelopment. But that would ignore the important role the rail yard played in Sacramento’s history. The seven buildings that remain standing are the only traces left of that legacy.

“They’re some of the most significant industrial buildings in the West, and some of the biggest in California,” Hammond says. “That alone makes them worth preserving.”

As this goes to press, the consensus is that Measures Q and R, which together call for a quarter-cent sales tax over the next 15 years to pay for the new arena, will suffer a crushing defeat at the polls. Nevertheless, civic leaders intend to keep pushing for the rail yard’s redevelopment.

“We still have a need for a sports and entertainment facility in this community, regardless of what happens next month,” says Sacramento’s Assistant City Manager John Dangberg. Site contamination, along with the fact that the land requires significant infrastructure upgrades and has yet to be sold to a developer, remains a major hurdle, he says.

“This has been ongoing for 12 years,” he continues. “It’s what you do to redevelop urban areas. You can blow them [the contaminated areas] out of proportion. The technology is there, the commitment is there, the time and the money is there.”

So why is it that no one can say exactly when the project will be completed?

“The reason why you can’t answer that question is that it doesn’t happen all at the same time,” he says. “This is a 10 to 15 year development process.”

Which no doubt means Sacramentans, who’ve been hearing about the rail yard’s redevelopment for decades, will continue hearing about it for many years to come.