No one is certain if youth center land is safe for kids

January 17, 2008

Last week, reported on misappropriation of FEMA funds by Atascadero city officials to build a replacement youth center on land containing significant levels of toxic pollution.

How significant are those toxin levels? set out to clarify the matter as much as possible. The emergent fact is, no one really knows.

From 1937-1983, the youth center’s locale, 5599 Traffic Way, was the site of a sewer treatment plant constructed of both unlined settling ponds and sludge beds. These were simply buried on-site when the plant closed, when the city transformed the site into a public works yard and a sewer lift station. A 500-gallon tank of gasoline was added to the land, as well as facilities to change oil and antifreeze.

According to a 2005 remedial excavation work plan by the city that discussed testing of the property, “The unlined effluent catch basins, settling ponds, and/or bio-solid or sludge beds may have leached contaminates into shallow ground water.”

The plan’s objective was to evaluate potential health risks of carcinogens found on the site including arsenic, Aroclor 1260, benzopyrene, and indenopyrene and to determine the amount of cleanup required.

A string of consultants hired by the city, their identities currently unclear because of unavailable or missing municipal records, tested and discussed the type of technology and cleanup required to protect public health. Reports and statements of the consultants and public officials differ widely over the type of testing and cleanup the ex-sewer plant and gasoline depository would need in order to render the land safe for human occupation.

After a recent citizen request, officials at the California Department of Public Health began examining records of soil testing and whatever cleanup might have occurred at the Atascadero Youth and Community Center site.

Marilyn Underwood of the California Department of Public Health said she discovered “a number” of files dealing with the testing and cleanup of the Atascadero site were missing from San Luis Obispo County Health Department files.

“The ‘clean-up and close’ file is just incomplete,” said SLO Health Department Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Aaron Labarre. “Jeff Poel (former SLO Health Department Supervising Environmental Health Specialist) left very abruptly. It was a haphazard situation I came into. This will be fixed.”

Labarre originally said Poell took portions of the file with him when he left his position at the Health Department for a job in Humboldt County. Subsequently, Labarre changed that assertion, saying the files had been stored in an electronic data base that would take approximately a week to retrieve.

Underwood is also reviewing a Human Health Risk Assessment prepared by Mearns Consulting Corporation in 2005, which lists the “exposure pathway dose” at 1.57. Translated, Mearns believed the site needed to be cleaned for toxic contaminants.

“The 2005 risk assessment by [consultant] Mearns raised some issues,” Underwood said. “If the dose is over 1.0, there is a need to do some type of cleanup.”

Site borings revealed the carcinogen Aroclor 1260 at a level of .9, requiring “some type of cleanup.” An acceptable level would be one-fourth this amount.

Even so, by averaging the Aroclor 1260 levels monitored throughout the site produced acceptable levels.

“People don’t stand over the same area on a site, so you can take an average,” said SLO Health Department consultant Teri Copeland.

Averaging appears to be another bone of contention. “You don’t average,” contends environmental consultant Susan Mearns.

In addition to the onslaught of conflicting views, health department officials and consultants disagree on whether or not ground water should have been tested.

The city’s remedial excavation report recommends testing ground water samples. However, at this time there have been no confirmed groundwater tests performed. The city of Atascadero derives all of its domestic water from groundwater resources.

“It’s not important to test the water,” Labarre said. “If this had been a gas station, it would have needed a more intense study.”

Labarre said that according to another consultant, Fugro West, water levels in the area of the youth center are 60 to 70 feet deep.

Environmental Consultant Greg Vogelpohl of ATC Associates, environmental consultants, refuted that, contending the center perches on a shallow ground water site. His statement is supported by comments made by county health department officials in a document prepared by Copeland and generated by the SLO County Health Department April 14, 2006. In part, those read:

“Groundwater is thought to be relatively shallow at the site. An evaluation of potential impacts to groundwater and the Atascadero creek (approximately 50 feet from the site) seems warranted, given the long-term history of unlined catch basins, ponds, and/or depressions, as well as the underground storage tank.”

The health department also posed questions regarding boring designations and the absence of data from the phase two catch basin area. Mearns Consulting responded to the queries June 6, 2006. Then health department officials refused to sign off on the project.

“Unfortunately, I am unable to issue a ‘no further action required’ letter for the site at this time, as Dr. Mearns did not adequately respond to the comments prepared by our consultant, Ms. Teri Copeland,” Health Department Environmental Specialist Poel wrote on June 22, 2006. “As we discussed… only one comment of the 17 comments was adequately addressed by Dr. Mearns.”

ADT collected data through drillings at the site. The city provided a specific scope of testing parameters.

“Based on the data, there were some human health issues that needed to be resolved,” Vogelpohl said recently. “I know there were some gaps. The groundwater was one of the pathways that was never inspected.”

After examining available records, Labarre and Underwood said it looked as if ATC and Associates had done remediation excavation of contaminated soil at the site

“We only did the assessment, not the cleanup,” Vogelpohl said.

Teri Copeland claimed another company, whom she did not identify for, did a very limited excavation of soils on the site.

The county health department signed off on the site on August 29, 2006.

“The health department has some culpability too for signing off on it,” Vogelpohl added.

Keep an eye on for more information on possible human health risk associated with the Atascadero Youth Center. Information will be updated and posted as records become available.

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Member Opinions:

By: Anonymous on 1/21/08

As a former “insider” at City Hall I can tell you that they all lie. When a former mayor was asked about Wal Mart he told me “we all lied about it.” His constituency should love that. Although the major source of lies are from the City Manager, Wade McKinney,and Frace and McHarris in Planning. The working staff have been put into a liars club. There was recently another study made of staff where almost 1/3 of the city emplyoees did not trust management. Better than that, 1/2 of them thought the city council were untruthful. What a mess.

By: Anonymous on 1/20/08

Hey Eric, This isn’t the first time that Jim Lewis has gone missing. When we (the people) had the public ex-parte sessions regarding any and all contact that city officials had with Wal-Mart Jim Lewis disappeared. He claimed that he had a family emergency and had to leave town. He never did give his ex-parte.

By: Anonymous on 1/19/08

Has anyone noticed that Wade’s Assistant Jim Lewis has all but disappeared? I heard he was in charge of the youth center back when you could still find him around city hall. You could probably set an appointment with him after he finishes shreading the evidence, and I am not joking! Everyone I know is talking about the new mayor cleaning up city hall. It’s time for meaningful change in Atascadero. Come on city council, it just seems so darn obvious that you need a new city manager.

By: Anonymous on 1/19/08

Rob say’s this is “lies and mis-quotes” but doesn’t state what is a lie or what is mis-quoted. I have seen many of the documents and this story is “right on”.

The only thing wrong is that she doesn’t have all the facts yet. She is about to blow some folks right out of the water (literaly) and doesn’t know it yet. This is nothing.

By: Anonymous on 1/19/08

I would not have believed it either, Rob. I had first hand experience with the city when I was editor of the A-News. But the best way to see the truth is to make yourself an appointment with Steve McHarris or Marty Tracey, city employees, and ask them about it. While your at it, talk to the infamous Lon Allan about his experience with the city and how they cover up. He has the best knowledge about the goings-on since he was with the A-News for more than 30 years. Ask him. Go ahead and then write something else.

By: Anonymous on 1/19/08

Hey Rob, To listen to you one would think that to say “I hate the war” means we hate the troops. Nothing could be further from the truth. I haven’t seen anyone blaming the staff. I have seen people putting the blame where it is due and that is square on Wade McKinney. I have heard from “city staffers”. They are very hopeful that Wade “ (the tyrant as many call him) will finally be replaced. They are actually apprecative that someone is going to clean this mess up. Here is a quote from a staffer. “90% of us are really excited that someone might finally be able to do something about Wade. We thought Mike and Ellen might not keep him but for some reason they did. We had lost all hope until now.”

By: Anonymous on 1/18/08

This is the poorest excuse for journalism I have seen to date! Uncoveredslo makes the National Enquirer seem like a reputable news source. Lies and mis-quotes to stir up discord. I truly hope people can see this as a smut site and investigate for themselves to get the truth. The Recreation Center is beautiful and a Win Win for the community. Well Done City staff!!!!

By: Anonymous on 1/18/08

I really think we are all making a big mistake if we are letting George Luna off the hook on this and actually, many other transgressions! He is one of the most tenured members of the City Council and while he claims to be the renegade, there sure has been alot of bologna going on right under his nose!And without comment or genuine protest or action. I believe he too has grown “stale” or maybe just weary. Sadly, maybe he has become an Atascadero politician, just with a different shitck. This all is very disappointing, if not alarming, and there probably more to be uncovered. Wow, is our little city “broken”! We need reallly strong leadership with a steady moral & ethicl compass. First step, run the City Manager out of town, and fast, and take Marcia with you.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

Keep it up, Karen. Little does the public know, the city tried to keep the media silent. Just look at the Atascadero News’ story on FEMA. It’s like the city wrote it. Sorry Ellen Holland, the new city editor of the A-News.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

I think someone should look into why the county health dept needs a week to open an electronic file that contains the reports 9that they finally found). This is a serious allegation and they should want to respond immediately. Everything about this story seems to be embroiled in cover ups.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

This is discusting. I’m going to send a letter to the Attorney General. If the City Council won’t do something then the people will have to do it for themselves. They are probably all in on it.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

I didn’t want to post on here but I can’t contain my thoughts any longer. I’m wondering if there was a lot more to this than Wade taking advantage of FEMA. If they (unknown as of yet)cared so much about a youth center for the kids then they would have cleaned the place up. I think there is perhaps a lot more to this. I’m wondering if anyone is investigating the money trail. I think it’s called for.

I make no apologies for this statement. They did this too themselves. I am ashamed of my city.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

It appears that Wade and his “good ole boys” rushed this project. Maybe they were concerned about FEMA discovering the fraud. Let’s elect a council in Novemer that eliminated the “boys” Clay, and O’Malley have got to go. They can get on the bus with McKinney.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

The creek runs through that property and feeds into our drinking water. I can’t believe that the ground water was never tested? This site called for a remedial clean-up which is very expensive like at least 7 digits. If they didn’t do it then Atascadero has another BIG PROBLEM on its hands.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

It sounds like as long as everybody keeps walking around while they are at the youth center then “on average” they will only be exposed to an exceptable level of carcinogen’s. That means don’t stand in one place too long when you watch the ball games folks!! I sure hope that this isn’t the case. What a messy mess someone has made.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

Did I understand Health Department consultant Teri Copeland when she said that it’s OK to average a site for toxins because “people don’t stand over the same area on a site.” If this is the case then I hope they have posted sign’s letting the people know where the .9 level aroclor 1260 is.

By: Anonymous on 1/17/08

Did I understand Health Department consultant Teri Copeland when she said that it’s OK to average a site for toxins because “people don’t stand over the same area on a site.” If this is the case then I hope they have posted sign’s letting the people know where the .9 level aroclor 1260 is.