ESCONDIDO — Testing to determine the type and extent of toxic contamination at the so-called Chatham Brothers property here began in earnest Wednesday--4 1/2 years after it was declared a hazardous waste site by county health officials.
The tests, being conducted by state and county toxic waste experts and specialized private contractors, will continue at least through Aug. 8 and will help officials determine just how to clean up the six-acre site.
The site is considered the worst case of toxic waste dumping in San Diego County and is the first in California to be targeted for cleanup money authorized by voters under the Hazardous Substance Cleanup Bond Act of 1984. The property is in the 2200 block of Bernardo Avenue in the southwestern part of the city.
The job of characterizing the type and extent of the contamination, analyzing the findings and mapping plans to clean up the site is expected to take until October. Depending on what is found, the actual cleanup could then take 12 months. The entire process is expected to cost about $2.5 million.
County and state health officials have been trying to get the site cleaned up since 1982, but their efforts were confounded because brothers Thomas and Robert Chatham had sold the property to Coastal Equities, a real estate investment firm that later went bankrupt. The Chathams have refused to pay for the cleanup, according to Larry Aker, who heads the hazardous materials office of the county Department of Health Services.
The site was never considered so dangerous as to receive Superfund cleanup funds from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and it wasn't until January, when the state Legislature allocated the 1984 bond funds, that state money was made available to clean the site.
The Chatham property became the first project to receive the money, not because it is the worst in the state but because it was the most "do-able," according to state officials. When the job is completed, the Chathams and other "responsible parties," including companies that dumped barrels of waste material there, will be billed by the state for the cleanup costs.
"It's good to finally see work getting under way here. It's a relief," said Jim Smith, the Southern California chief of the state's Toxic Substances Control Division.
The undeveloped parcel, in a rural part of Escondido, was used by the Chatham brothers as the site of their industrial solvent and waste oil recycling business, and was used as a dumping ground for metal drums of chemicals used in local industry. The business was shut down in 1982.
The site does not pose an immediate health peril to nearby residents and there are no airborne toxins at the site, tests have shown. But among the concerns of health department investigators--in addition to the more than 150 barrels at the site, mushy ground and visible chemical spills--is whether there are toxic materials or barrels buried beneath the surface that have so far escaped detection.
Also unknown to health officials is whether the underground water supply has been tainted. The water table feeds into nearby Lake Hodges, a reservoir.
On Wednesday, toxic experts from the state, the county Department of Health Services and two state contractors--Tetra Tech Inc. and the IT Corp.--walked onto the site, equipped with self-contained breathing apparatuses and clothed from head to toe in protective gear, suggesting that the dangers at the site are far worse than neighbors might have imagined.
The precautions were taken because sludge samples were being taken from barrels on the site and officials have not yet determined exactly how toxic the material is.
The barrels will be inventoried and moved to one spot to prepare for next Monday's work, when a backhoe will be used to dig a six-foot-deep, 100-foot-long trench across the property that may reveal whether any hazardous materials are buried there.
Monday's activities may be the most precarious because it is not known just what the backhoe may uncover from its trenching, said Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for the state Toxic Substances Control Division.
For that reason, health officials and the Escondido Fire Department have prepared contingency plans that call for area residents within a quarter of a mile or half a mile of the site--depending on the severity of the problem--to be evacuated to San Pasqual High School should monitoring equipment show that toxins are escaping into the air.
In addition to the digging, workers will take surface samples and drill 18 boreholes and four water-monitoring wells to provide soil and groundwater samples. They will dig more if they detect a plume of underground contamination, said Megan Cambridge, project officer on the site.
By October, officials expect to have figured out what chemicals are at the site, how widespread and how deep they are, and how best to remove them.