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When it comes to redevloping the downtown Sacramento railyard and cleaing up the former EPA Superfund Site, it’s beginning to seem like never the twain shall meet.
That’s one conclusion that can be drawn from last week’s Sacramento Bee story documenting the ongoing troubles at what may be the most toxic piece of real estate in California.
Still at issue, after nearly two decades of debate: Who’s going to pay for the cleanup, now and into the foreseeable future? And why do city officials continue to maintain the railyard is the best place to locate hundreds of new housing units, dozens of new shops and a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment arena?
Officials from Union Pacific, the former owner of the railyard, told the Bee that the railroad is the “responsible party” when it comes to cleanup of the site. To be fair, UP has done a considerable amount of work, digging up and transporting out of state more than 500,000 tons of contaminated topsoil. It also has installed a ring of pumps around the railyard that filter 400,000 gallons of groundwater per day from the contaminated aquifer beneath it. Those pumps will have to remain operating for decades, a testament to just how polluted the railyard remains.
Call it the legacy of western expansionism. It began in 1863 when Leland Stanford started building the western side of the transcontinental railroad at the foot of K Street. That set off an industrial boom the likes of which has not been seen in Sacramento since. As former railyard worker David Joslyn commented in his memoir, virtually anything you can imagine was made in Sac.
“Streetcars were built there, cable cars from San Francisco’s steep hills. Palatial private cars, dining cars, observation cars, day coaches … ferry boats, including boilers and machinery, river steamers, deep well pumps, turntables, bridges, both wood and steel, bolts, nuts, spikes, switches and switch stands, lamps and lanterns of every description ...”
Or call it the legacy of 150 years of sheer, unadulterated stupidity. All of the above items have their own toxic byproducts—arsenic, benzene, lead, tetrachloroethylene, diesel, gas, motor oil, acetone, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene, asbestos—all of which were dumped in giant open pits. Battery acid was poured into the ground well into the 1980s.
Union Pacific bought this toxic wasteland from Southern Pacific in 1996 and immediately tried to unload it. However, despite the remediation work it has done, UP has continually balked when it has been asked to do more by prospective buyers of the property and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. Six years ago, Georgia-based developer Thomas Enterprises purchased the railyards after years of haggling with UP over cleanup issues. Thomas Enterprises defaulted on its loan in 2010, which transferred ownership—and the haggling—to Inland American, which had underwritten the loan.
I wrote a story for the Sacramento News & Review about the railyard cleanup in October, 2006. In part, the article was a response to Measures Q and R, proposed sales tax increases that would have raised more than $600 million in public funds over 15 years to build a new sports and entertainment facility in the downtown railyard. The people of Sacramento were wise that November, decisively vetoing both measures. They never have been too keen on publicly funding the Sacramento Kings.
Nevertheless, Sacramento city officials remain obsessed with redevolping the railyard. Earlier this year, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and the City Council voted to trade city parking revenues for the next 50 years in order to fund a new sports arena at the railyard and entice the Sacramento Kings to stay in town.
When the deal fell apart, the Maloof family, owner of the Kings, offered to stay if Sacramento renovated Arco Arena. In my opinion, K.J. and crew should have taken the deal. Or offer to redevelop Cal Expo. Anything but the railyard.
That’s because I remain unconvinced that the environmental damage done at the downtown Sacramento railyard can be undone. It’s too extensive.
“We still have a need for a sports and entertainment facility in this community, regardless of what happens next month,” then Sacramento Assistant City Manager John Dangberg told me six years ago. At the time, efforts to redevelop the railyard had been ongoing for 12 years. I asked him why no one can estimate when the cleanup process will be complete and redevelopment can begin.
“The reason why you can’t answer that question is that it doesn’t happen all at the same time,” he said. “This is a 10-to-15-year development process.”
Make that 18 years and counting.