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A toxic legacy in downtown Santa Rosa

  • A crew earlier this year works on sealing a massive tank once filled with coal tar buried beneath the parking lot of Westamerica Bank in downtown Santa Rosa, site of a long-closed PG&E gas plant. Efforts to clean up the contamination, and disputes about who is responsible, have gone on for years. ((Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat))

Downtown, on the north bank of Santa Rosa Creek, a large mural of a fish graces a concrete retaining wall along the Prince Memorial Greenway.

The colorful artwork is meant to celebrate one of the key goals of the $25 million public works project — the restoration of the creek's aquatic habitat.

But the health of the creek remains threatened by what lies hidden behind that retaining wall — soil and groundwater contaminated with a toxic brew of oil and other poisonous byproducts left behind at a former manufactured-gas plant.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. closed the plant in 1924 and now is spending tens of millions of dollars to clean the site at First and B streets, now mostly covered by the parking lot of the Westamerica Bank building.

But 26 years after regulators ordered the property cleaned up, it still hasn't been and won't be for years.

Finger-pointing by property owners. Failure to disclose the true conditions of the site. Lapses in regulatory oversight. Threats or fears of lawsuits. Complex engineering challenges. All have conspired to make the cleanup one of the longest, most-complicated and expensive such projects on the North Coast.

Regulators have called the site “gnarly” because of the severity of the contamination, its proximity to the creek and the presence of underground utilities.

After several years of studies and work at the site, PG&E now says it's going to take up to a year to rethink a key piece of the plan — installation of an underground cutoff wall to prevent contamination from ever reaching the creek.

That strikes Santa Rosa City Councilman Jake Ours, who has experience with a similar PG&E site in San Rafael, as foot-dragging. The longer the contamination remains in place, the greater the chance it will migrate toward the creek, Ours said.

“It's a toxic dump in the middle of our city. Do I want that cleaned up? I sure do,” Ours said. “I think the story needs to be told.”

Source of light, heat

That story begins in 1876, when Santa Rosa was a dusty farming town and home to fewer than 4,000 people. The Santa Rosa Gas Light Co. was established that year to produce and distribute gas to light city streets and heat cooking stoves.

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