Residents in the town of Washington, when glancing to the north this past summer, may have caught a glimpse of multiple individuals decked out in Hazmat suits attached to rock-climbing ropes repelling down a sheer cliff to the canyon floor below.
While the vision might have echoes of post-apocalyptic zombie movies currently in vogue, it was actually the culmination of a complex environmental clean-up project conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with the state of California and the Nevada County Department of Public Health.
From 1955 until 1979, Relief Hill Dump, located down a steep precipice about a mile up Relief Hill Road from the town of Washington, operated as a burn dump. After 1979, the location was also the site of illegal dumping until 2010, when the forest service and Cal-Recycle established a cost-sharing deal to remediate the site.
Of particular concern, according to Wesley Nicks of the county environmental health department, was the proximity of the dump site to Poormans Creek, a tributary to the South Yuba River, which was about one-tenth of a mile away. Poormans Creek then filters into the South Yuba River another quarter mile removed from the dump.
“It was pretty close,” he said.
A burn dump tends to accumulate heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, along with dioxins and hyrdrocarbons, all of which can present human health hazards if they leech into the watershed, Nicks said.
Beginning this summer, workers from Pacific States Environmental Contractors began removing debris from the Relief Hill Dump site.
The $283,000 project, entailed individuals to rappel down the steep slopes to the bottom of a cliff, where the debris had accumulated for about five and a half decades, said Rick Weaver, hydrologist and hazardous materials spill coordinator for the forest service.
Once at the bottom, the workers collected debris and filled large boxes mounted on sled rails, which were hauled via tow truck up the steep slope, where the trash was transferred into 40-yard long dumpsters and hauled away, Weaver said.
Approximately 75-100 cubic yards of waste were removed, including 4.83 tons of miscellaneous debris, 16 large tractor/trailer tires, 120 passenger vehicle tires, 25 tons of scrap metal and four abandoned autos, according to a forest service news release.
The site was then closed to further dumping by blocking off the access with K-rails topped with chain-link fence. The Hazmat suits were necessary due to the substantial amount of naturally occurring asbestos in the area, Stevens said.
Signs were posted to notify the public that dumping is prohibited.
Monitoring of the site will continue to ensure no more illegal dumping occurs in the area and the cap placed over the former dump does not leak as surface water travels through the site.
Users of the South Yuba Trail, which traverses near the dump, will no longer be subjected to views of rusted refuse and piles of antiquated trash as they make their way through the area.
“People are no longer walking through broken glass, and it’s a clear aesthetic upgrade,” Weaver said.
Nicks said his department will move on to other sites throughout the county and the national forest.
Weaver asked the public to keep the forest service abreast of illegal dumping throughout the national forest boundaries.
“We can use help from the public,” Weaver said. “If anyone notices illegal dump sites or abandoned vehicles in the national forest, please contact me,” at (530) 478-6241.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.