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Davis Superfund site gets solar-powered cleanup

Chemical pollution in a small waste pond west of Sacramento reached such virulent levels that a dog died after swimming in it in the 1980s and federal regulators warned it would take two centuries to clean up.

On Wednesday, those same officials proudly unveiled high-tech gear - including an array of solar energy panels - that would shorten the decontamination process at the Frontier Fertilizer Superfund Site, in the city of Davis, by more than 150 years.

"If you think about the Superfund laws that came in after Love Canal - they require these toxic sites to be cleaned up no matter what," said Jared Blumenfeld, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator. "A huge amount of technological innovation is being created to meet these challenges."

Blumenfeld and a crowd of state and federal authorities gathered Wednesday to flip the switch on a system they hope will become a model for the 1,100 locations around the United States considered so hazardous to the environment or public health that their cleanup qualifies for millions in federal funding.

The infamous Love Canal disaster, which set the stage for the Superfund program, came to light in the 1970s when residents of a Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood found rusting barrels of harmful chemicals leaching into their yards, basements and pools. A longtime chemical manufacturer had buried waste on the site, which was later sold to the city for $1. Residents exposed to the toxics experienced high levels of birth defects, miscarriages and chemical burns.

As part of the cleanup in Davis, a set of 236 electrodes - some as long as 90 feet - have been sunk deep into the ground below the former site of an unlined, 5-acre pond just north of Interstate 80 near the eastern boundary of Davis. For close to 20 years, two pesticide companies used the pond as a dumping ground for fumigants left behind after farmers sprayed their fields.

Heated rods

The electrical rods, after being heated to 212 degrees, will convert the underground water and contaminants into a noxious gas, which will then be pumped to the surface and run through carbon filters to remove the chemicals. The process, known as electrical resistive heating, was developed to treat highly radioactive waste areas.

As part of the same effort, a newly installed solar energy system will power the pumping and filtering of tens of millions of gallons each year of tainted groundwater located between the old pond and a residential neighborhood to the north. It marks the first time such a water treatment system will get 100 percent of its fuel from the sun's rays, officials said.

The entire effort is expected to cost upward of $40 million. The federal government is funding the cleanup after determining that Frontier Fertilizer didn't have the financial resources.

30-year cleanup

Project manager Bonnie Arthur said the electrical heating process should remove pollution from the former pond in about 18 months. That means the overall cleanup will take 30 more years, not the total 200 originally projected - saving millions over the lifetime of the project.

The 8-acre parcel gives little indication of the nasty substances that lie in the clay and pockets of water underneath. It is located on Second Street at a curve in the road near a Target store, gas station and a development of modest single-family homes. Through the 1970s and early 1980s, pesticides and fertilizers were stored, mixed and distributed there. Frontier Fertilizer, its last owner, regularly poured unused, old and residue chemicals into the disposal basin.

Toxic substances

In the mid-1980s, local authorities learned of the site's safety problems when a pet dog died after wading into the pool, Arthur said. Federal toxic substance regulators examined the property, began treating groundwater in the area in the 1990s, and designated it a Superfund site. That work has prevented the chemicals from seeping into the 180-foot-deep wells that supply drinking water to Davis residents, officials say.

If all goes according to plan, the agency hopes to clean the area so thoroughly that the city may use the treated water to irrigate landscaping and open space. And the land could eventually be reborn as a park or commercial plaza.

"This is about converting a highly contaminated property into a productive part of the community," said Linda Adams, secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

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