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Cleanup of Toxics at Chatham Site May Start in December, Cost Less

Times Staff Writer

Cleanup of the notorious Chatham Brothers toxic waste site in Escondido should begin by the end of the year, for 10% of the previously estimated cost, state health officials said Monday.

The breakthrough in the long-stalled cleanup came after officials, in bureaucratic language, redefined the toxic material at the site. The new definition of the waste material will enable the state to simply dump the tainted soil at a hazardous-waste landfill--at a cost of about $200,000--rather than incinerate the toxins, at a cost of about $2 million.

Jim Marxen, spokesman for the toxic substances division of the State Department of Health Services, acknowledged that earlier promises to clean up the site had been unfulfilled, and cautioned again:

“We’ve made promises in the past, and we’re not making any promises this time, but we think the way is clear for us to clean it up now.”

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Site Identified in 1982

Cleanup of the 7-acre site, at the corner of Bernardo Avenue and Gamble Lane in rural southwestern Escondido, has been targeted by state and county officials since the property was first declared a toxic waste site by the state in 1982.

But the cleanup, which was stalled by litigation, was jeopardized last year when the state found it had spent virtually all its toxic-site cleanup funds before it was able to make significant headway at the Chatham site. The land is tainted with PCBs, heavy metals and oil, the result of a 40-year liquid-solvent and waste-oil recycling operation conducted by Robert and Thomas Chatham until about 1980.

Cleanup cost was estimated at $2 million because it was assumed that the Chatham waste was regulated by the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and had to be incinerated. Yet, only $1 million is now available for the Chatham site.

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Marxen said Monday that investigators, who have defined residual chemicals found at the site, are unable to technically categorize the original form and sources of the waste. Since it is unclear whether the original material falls within federal toxic guidelines, officials decided that the tainted soil could be trucked to a hazardous-waste landfill, at a fraction of the cost. The closest such landfill is in Imperial County.

Checked Records

Marxen said the state attorney general’s office, which previously had pursued litigation on the cleanup against the Chatham brothers, investigated how the waste material was received by the Chathams.

“Over the past two months,” he said, “we’ve done an exhaustive search of those records and found we could not trace the materials the Chatham brothers received. We can’t determine if it was waste--or whether it was an actual product . . . that would go back on the market.

“Since we couldn’t declare it to be waste, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) staffers told us on an informal basis that we don’t have to declare it regulated” by federal disposal guidelines.

Marxen said tests still need to be conducted--including the boring of water-monitoring wells--to determine whether the ground water is tainted by toxins that might have migrated off the site, toward Lake Hodges to the south. So far, however, there have been no such indications.

Ground-water monitoring, further soil sampling and air monitoring will begin by mid-April, Marxen said, with completion expected by October.

If the ground water is found to be contaminated and migrating off site, Marxen said, the site will be declared an “imminent and substantial endangerment,” and cleanup will begin immediately after the finding.

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Assuming no such urgency is warranted, actual removal work is expected to begin by mid-December and be completed by next January, Marxen said.

Health officials were unable to make their finding about the nature of the toxic material before now, Marxen said, “because the records were embargoed in the attorney general’s office during their own investigation to determine who the responsible parties were.”

The state ultimately was left with the problem.


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