RANDY PENCH / Bee file, 2012

This aerial photo shows much of the Sacramentro railyard, which could undergo final toxic clean-up, a critical step in future development of the land adjacent to downtown.

State approves key railyard cleanup plan; owner objects

Published: Thursday, Jul. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013 - 1:18 pm

After years of rewrites and delays, state environmental officials on Wednesday approved a long-awaited plan for toxic cleanup of the central shops section of the downtown Sacramento railyard.

The state authorization is seen as a key step in readying the 240-acre railyard for development as an extension of downtown with housing, offices and stores, as well as a major railroad technology museum.

But the state's decision left one major downtown player upset – the railyard's current owner, Inland American Real Estate Trust.

Inland and Sacramento city officials had lobbied the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to require former railyard owner Union Pacific to cover any future costs for as-yet undiscovered extra contamination in the central shops area.

If not, an Inland spokesman said, potential developers and builders may shy away from investing in the railyard, fearing they might have to pick up the tab if more toxic substances are found on the parcels they plan to develop.

"All future developers and landowners must have the certainty that Union Pacific will have the full responsibility to clean up historic contamination so the (railyard redevelopment plan) can be fulfilled," Inland spokesman Jared Ficker wrote in an email.

"We do not believe this (cleanup plan) provides the certainty that others … will not have to bear the costs of cleaning up some of Union Pacific's legacy."

Several recent surprise contamination finds already are in dispute. When digging for new train passenger platforms last year, city workers unearthed a large container of contaminated soil and a buried tank.

The city has called on UP to pay those cleanup costs. City officials declined comment Wednesday.

For their part, Department of Toxic Substances Control officials said Wednesday they intend to hold UP "100 percent responsible" for carrying out all agreed-upon cleanup of known contamination. But they said they do not have the legal right to issue a blanket requirement that UP pay for any future contamination discoveries.

"We're not allowed to require something that open-ended," said Ray Leclerc, assistant deputy director. "We've tried to take care of everything we know about."

Leclerc said the state will attempt to work with UP, Inland and the city if something else pops up.

Much of the 240-acre railyard already has been cleaned. The cleanup of the central shops area – a task estimated at more than $20 million – represents one of the final steps in preparing the site for development.

That area was a locomotive manufacturing and railroad maintenance facility for 130 years, leaving numerous contaminants in the soil.

The shops' cleanup issue has been a sticking point for nearly two years. Toxic Substances Control rejected several previous cleanup plans submitted by UP, calling the rail company's initial proposal terrible.

Under the newly approved "remedial action plan," UP will dig up and replace contaminated dirt on about an acre west of the shops area. The state rejected an earlier UP proposal to leave the remaining contaminated soil in place and pave over it.

The upcoming work also includes planning and installing vapor extraction systems around the shops area, and continued cleanup of a contaminated underground water plume that extends under downtown.

State officials said their approval of Union Pacific's revised cleanup plan is conditioned on UP finalizing plans and collecting more data in the next four months.

"We are happy to be done with it," said Leclerc, of Toxic Substances Control. "It is one of our biggest projects – a very big brownfield for us."

UP officials said they plan to move forward quickly. "We're pleased we have a final" action plan, spokesman Aaron Hunt said. "We are ready to get moving on our implementation plan that we will share with (the state department). Once that is finalized, we can get to work on the cleanup."

UP did not respond to a later Bee request for comment on Inland's objections to the remediation plan.

A handful of railyard redevelopment projects are on the planning board, waiting for clarity on the toxics issue:

• Inland has a tentative deal with the state for a new building to house the Sacramento Superior Court north of the existing federal courthouse.

• State officials are making plans to turn two of the shop buildings into a rail museum.

• Inland and city officials have said they need to begin construction of affordable housing on site, making use of state grants that require the housing to be built soon.

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.

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