Curtis Park on top of toxic wasteland

Originally published in the Express on 04.05.10

Illustration: Daniel Curran

The proposal to bury 250,000 cubic yards of toxic soil, in an effort to cut costs in the embattled Curtis Park Village project, is a disturbing development in the Petrovich Development Company’s plan to convert the old Union Pacific railyard into the mixed-use community composed of residential and commercial properties that has been under debate for more than five years. Ranked as the largest property development company in the Sacramento region the past two years, Petrovich has developed 30 projects totaling 4 million square feet in 11 years.

A festering cesspool of toxic matter has plagued the site of the former Union Pacific railyard behind City College for decades. Activities conducted at the Union Pacific railroad maintenance facility included sandblasting, painting, machining, welding, dismantling and reassembly of trains and rail cars — activities that left toxic materials in the soil.

Citing a changing market and increased cleanup costs, Petrovich proposes to bury the soil, an amount so large it will need a 7-acre hole 20 feet deep to contain it. According to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the toxics in the chasm will be topped with a plastic geomembrane material used for capping buried toxic materials, then covered with 2 feet of clean soil.

Considering the neighboring community of Curtis Park —with some homes over 100 years old — the proposed decision to cover toxic soil, under a park no less, with a cap that has an estimated shelf life of 30 years is not only an irresponsible direction for the land, but it begs the question: Has careful and thoughtful study been completed to determine the safety of such a measure?

Geomembranes are typically designed not to be load bearing, according to a 1997 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, Petrovich proposes to bury the remaining contaminated soil under the community’s planned 7-acre park.

Loads applied to geomembranes may have large effects on the properties of the liner, according to that same EPA report. The effect of recurring loads, like the construction of a playground, can adversely affect the integrity of the liner material, which could potentially expose people to health risks.

Unknown are the potential risks to those who would play, live or work near the park should this plastic membrane fail. With the health and well-being of the community at stake, the primary contaminant being lead, which interferes with the development of the nervous system and is especially toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders, this is unacceptable.

Contamination in the soil consists primarily of lead, arsenic, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and cleanup activities have been ongoing since August 2003. According to the DTSC, the cleanups are slated to continue through 2010.

If Petrovich’s plan is approved by the city, those who live and work in the Curtis Park Village development should be able to have confidence that their community is free from environmental toxins. The EPA indicated additional analysis of the reliability of these type of liners use needed to be conducted, it would be wise for Petrovich to conduct an investigation of his own — whatever the cost.

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