Before last week, it had been a long time since anything good happened to the six-acre site in Escondido where, for 35 years, Thomas and Robert Chatham operated a chemical distilling and reclamation business. The property, covered with years-old industrial chemical waste both in the open and in metal storage drums, was declared a hazardous waste site in 1981 and is considered to be the worst case of toxic waste dumping in the county.
Now the property is the first in the state to undergo a cleanup paid for by funds authorized in 1984 by the state's voters. On Wednesday, experts wearing protective gear began peeling this toxic onion in an effort to learn what secrets lie at its center. It's expected to take them about three months to figure out what's there and how to dispose of it. As part of the investigation, they hope to determine if the waste has contaminated the underground water table, which feeds into nearby Lake Hodges, a reservoir.
Cleaning up the site is expected to cost the state about $2.9 million. So far, the Chatham brothers have not agreed to pay any portion of that. But once the cleanup has taken place, the Department of Health Services will attempt to determine which companies deposited toxic waste on the site, and those that can be identified will bear responsibility, along with the Chathams, for reimbursing the state.