No one is certain if youth center land is safe for kids
January 17, 2008
Last week, UncoveredSLO.com 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? UncoveredSLO.com 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 UncoveredSLO.com, 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 UncoveredSLO.com for more information on possible human health risk associated with the Atascadero Youth Center. Information will be updated and posted as records become available.