Stuck deep

Deal with Bel Air supermarket founders has kept city officials spending money on hazardous land for two-and-a-half decades

City officials say this section of once-toxic land at Meadowview’s community center is now fully clean, thanks to large-scale excavation and resoiling. Groundwater in the area still has toxic PCE.

City officials say this section of once-toxic land at Meadowview’s community center is now fully clean, thanks to large-scale excavation and resoiling. Groundwater in the area still has toxic PCE.

photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

Cleaning up contaminated soil and ground water is unpredictable. Sacramento officials have been grappling with that reality for 27 straight years in Meadowview, thanks to a deal that was struck with a family of well-known entrepreneurs.

Since 1992, efforts have been underway to purify toxic soils and aquifers around the Pannell-Meadowview Community Center. City officials inherited that responsibility after taking possession of the land from the Wong family, local founders of the Bel Air Supermarket chain. Nearly three decades and several million dollars later, Sacramento is still paying to clean the site and remains under a mandate to do so from the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

City officials say there’s no danger to those using the community center or living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The root of the contamination lies in the fact that a gas station and dry cleaner once operated on the property. City architect Ezra Roati, who recently took over management of the clean-up, says reports suggest individuals involved with the dry cleaner may have been pouring toxic chemicals straight onto the ground.

Records from the county assessor’s office indicate the property was purchased by Bel Air Real Estate Investments and its owners, the Wong family, in December 1966. No previous owners are documented by the county. The Wongs rose to prominence by starting their first Bel Air supermarket on Fruitridge Road in 1955. According to a 1992 property transfer agreement between the City of Sacramento and their company, the Wongs claimed no responsibility for tenants polluting the land. The agreement shows they and the city knew that the ground was toxic thanks to an independent scientific study.

“Based on our observations during field work and the laboratory analysis, the ground water in the vicinity of the former dry cleaner facilities has been contaminated with halogenated solvents, primarily [perchloraethylene, also known as] PCE,” wrote geologists Mike Keenan and Eric Hubbert in 1991. “Based on our site investigation and interviews with former dry cleaner tenants, the possibility exists that solvents have been discharged into the sewer and leaked from the sewer into the surface environment.”

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a recent study linked PCE exposure through drinking water to higher stillbirth rates. PCE exposure has also been linked to heightened risk for autoimmune diseases.

Various city environmental reports from the 1990s also document gasoline contamination on the site; the city now says it has dealt with that issue.

The transfer agreement details that in exchange for the Wongs donating the land for the community center, the city agreed to assume all liability for chemical clean-up. Last week, Roati confirmed that he expects the city will still be spending money on the clean-up well into 2022.

The chemical removal involves the city using underground monitoring wells and a filtering system to gradually siphon a toxic plume of PCE that floats on the top of underground aquifer.

“It’s a very slow process and it takes a long time to remediate it,” Roati said. “We’ve made sure all the ground wells in the area are not in use … The good thing is that the plume is not growing, it’s not moving and it hasn’t been migrating in any other directions. In terms of the risk to the public, it’s virtually zero.”

That’s not to say city officials expected such a herculean task when they took the property off the Wongs’ hands. In a 2015 email from former Environmental Programs Manager Karl Kurka, which SN&R obtained through a public records request, Kurka told the city’s management team, “As history shows, the cost for cleanup continued to rise … The original budget for $2.3 million from the general funds is almost exhausted.”

The overall price tag for the life of the project now sits at $3.4 million. Staff reports from the city’s General Services Department also documented that at least $1.5 million in state funds were leveraged for the clean-up. Roati said that, in the coming months, he’ll be asking the city to earmark another $250,000 to keep the work going for another three years. He added that while it’s difficult to predict, it’s possible the clean-up could last into 2028.

“The goal is to get a notification from the Regional Water Quality Control Board indicating there’s no more action needed,” Roati said. “Until then we’re going to be continuously monitoring it and working it.”