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Agencies on watch for chemical hazards in Yuba-Sutter

In describing the potential dangers — everything from a toxic gas cloud to an explosion — state officials last month described thousands of gallons of chemicals at a defunct plating shop in Yuba City as "nasty stuff."

It turns out, nasty stuff is found at dozens of places in Yuba-Sutter, and environmental health departments investigate hundreds of them every year, though few ever become the problem found at Custom Chrome and Bumper.

Sutter County spokesman Chuck Smith said the environmental health department collects annual business plans from 600 businesses, and inspects them every one to three years, or more often depending on circumstances.

While he did not have exact figures available for Yuba County, environmental health manager Tej Maan said Yuba similarly collects plans from businesses with chemicals and inspects them regularly.

Beyond environmental health departments, both the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency also monitor such sites, with Toxic Substances Control maintaining an online database of places on which it is currently or recently monitoring.

A search for such monitoring activities shows 49 sites in Sutter County and 55 in Yuba County, with status ranging from "no further action" or "no action required" to "inactive: action required" or referring to a cleanup.

In Yuba County, for example, a search shows a voluntary lead cleanup at what was Keystone Automotive in Olivehurst, on land now partially occupied by a Rite Aid store.

Listings for Sutter County show a need for action at Art Amarel Salvage on North Township Road in Yuba County, citing potential lead and motor oil in the soil.

But Charlotte Fadipe, a media officer for Toxic Substances Control, said people should not assume a site is an imminent and definite hazard just because it is listed in the department's database.

The department only carries out an emergency response like the one at Custom Chrome about 100 times a year statewide, she said.

"What made this unique is we knew it was abandoned," she said. "It didn't feel particularly safe to leave it there."

Fadipe said local, state and federal agencies all do their own inspections as well as joint ones, and all keep in touch with each other on their activities when applicable.

When more than one agency gets involved, it may be because the bigger agency can do more, said Dan Meer, assistant director of the Superfund division of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

His agency can issue fines of up to $32,500 a day for failure to comply with identified problems, or issue clean-up bills for triple the cost if a business owner does not take care of it, he said.

"We call it the gorilla in the closet," said Meer, whose agency had been monitoring Custom Chrome before its owner died last year and the cleanup effort fell to Toxic Substances Control.

When to report hazardous chemicals

From the federal level down to the local one, officials who oversee potentially hazardous chemicals said have a consistent message for residents who think something's amiss with the business next door: Call and check it out.

"We prefer a call," said Tej Maan, Yuba County's environmental health director. "We're always discovering new businesses in the county that aren't under a permit."

Departments like Maan's inspect businesses that file reports showing chemicals on site once every three years, though they can be inspected more often if there is a complaint or other reasons.

Businesses with underground tanks, such as gas stations, get annual inspections, said Sutter County spokesman Chuck Smith.

Inspection reports are publicly available on request, and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has an online database of situations it is monitoring statewide.

But neighbors do not always know.

In the case of Custom Chrome and Bumper in Yuba City, residents who shared a fence with the plating shop said they knew chemicals were stored at the business, but knew nothing of a potential hazard before state officials announced they had completed a cleanup there last month.

Smith said in such situations, neighbors would be warned if inspectors, including fire department officials, felt there was an imminent danger. Local officials didn't believe there was such a threat with Custom Chrome, he said.

Custom Chrome site not a total loss

Custom Chrome and Bumper may be a memory, but the lot it occupied on Garden Highway in Yuba City may not have seen its last transaction.

After officials from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control do a second inspection and cleanup this spring for solid chemicals on the lot, the goal is to make it ready for use again.

"We like to put what we call contaminated land back into productive use," said Charlotte Fadipe, media officer for the Toxic Substances Control.

The legacy for the half-acre lot is some of both.

Custom Chrome opened in the 1950s and was inspected once a decade by the state for most of its life. In 2004, a change in state law transferred inspections to Sutter County, which did so once every three years, or more often as necessary.

On regular inspections in 2006 and 2009, and a follow-up inspection in 2010, county officials regularly found issues, usually either mislabeling chemicals or improperly storing them, said Sutter County spokesman Chuck Smith.

After the owner died last year, a state inspection found 11,000 gallons of potentially hazardous chemicals, stored in a number of barrels and tanks.

Tej Maan, environmental health director for Yuba County, said generally, situations like that are the exception, not the rule.

"Nowadays, newer businesses, the people are more aware and more on top of this," he said. "This one seems like all of the worst situations come together."

Fadipe said her agency feels there's no current danger at the site, but some soil may have to be removed before her department clears it for occupancy again.

Neighbor Reyna Meza, 16, said she hopes if another business moves in, the neighbors know more.

"Just so we know what's going on there," she said of Custom Chrome, which shares a back fence with the house she's lived in for seven years.

CONTACT Ben van der Meer at bvandermeer@appealdemocrat.com or 749-4786. Find him on Facebook at /ADbvandermeer or on Twitter at @ADbvandermeer.


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