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'Nasty stuff' cleaned up at Garden Highway site
11,000 gallons of chemicals posed hazard
Months after it closed, Custom Chrome and Bumper still had enough toxic chemicals on site for state officials to call it among the very worst they had ever seen.
Adam Palmer, emergency response program head for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said his agency investigates about 125 such sites a year, but only one or two at the level of a potential explosion.
"This was a bit of a surprise," he said, adding he wasn't aware of any complaints lodged against Custom before his department began investigating it last year.
To at least one neighbor, though, the condition wasn't surprising at all. Carl McCrary, whose home borders the half-acre property the business is on, said when there was a wind from the south, he could smell the chemicals.
"I don't garden, I don't even eat fruit off the trees back there," said McCrary, 55, who has lived there since 1999. "It's been pretty obvious."
The action the state agency took isn't the first one at the site, either.
More than a decade ago, said Sutter County District Attorney Carl Adams, he and state regulators prosecuted the business owner for dumping chemicals down an open drain.
"I don't know what problems they were having this time with the chemicals, but from what I recall, it looked like they weren't trying very hard," Adams said.
He added he didn't remember what penalties the owner, Frederick Gene Hutchinson, ended up facing, but they may have included paying for the cleanup.
Typically, business owners who run afoul of state regulations only do it once, sometimes because the cost of compliance is high, or they're unaware of what the regulations stipulate, Adams said.
"This is different," he said. "This is a business in a particular location, that knows the rules.
"If this is toxic substances, they know what they have to do."
— Ben van der Meer
A closed Yuba City chrome and detail shop housed thousands of gallons worth of hazardous chemicals, prompting state officials to announce Friday they had completed a cleanup and posted signs warning people to stay out.
"The type of chemicals they were storing here is really nasty stuff," said Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. "Frankly, it's the type that if it's not handled carefully, it can go boom."
Department officials announced the findings at the contaminated site of what was Custom Chrome and Bumper, 335 Garden Highway in Yuba City. The auto detailing business, which dated to the 1950s, closed last spring, and owner Frederick Gene Hutchinson died last summer, according to the state.
Adam Palmer, the department's head of emergency response programs, said the shuttered business had 11,000 gallons of potentially hazardous liquid chemicals on site, including acids and cyanide.
If the liquids — stored in barrels and dip tanks — had combined, the chemical reaction could have caused a deadly gas or even an explosion, he said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 2,200 people live within a 3-mile radius, according to its website. State officials began investigating the site last fall at the EPA's recommendation and began the cleanup in November, Palmer said.
"We have removed the immediate threat to the neighborhood," he said, noting there are homes and businesses next to the half-acre property. He said department officials will be back later this year to clean up solid hazardous materials.
After Hutchinson's death, the business and his estate fell into bankruptcy, so the state will pay for cleaning the site — $225,000 so far.
Palmer estimated the state will spend another $100,000 for additional cleanup and remediation.
Though the investigation began after the shop closed, Palmer said, Hutchinson had already been under pressure from authorities to address the situation. Any new owner would have had to rectify the situation before operating again, he said.
State officials were in contact with Sutter County Environmental Health during the investigation and cleanup, Palmer said.
Sutter County spokesman Chuck Smith said such businesses are inspected every three years, and inspectors had discovered issues at the shop on previous inspections.
Typical practice is for the county to work with a business owner to resolve such issues, he said.
Smith said inspections by county and Yuba City fire departments had not determined the site posed an imminent threat, so neighbors weren't warned.
At a neighboring business, an employee said she wasn't aware of any problems caused by the shop.
"They were cleaning and everything for three weeks," said Adela Ibarra, whose brothers own La Mexicana, a store and deli, next door to Custom Chrome and Bumper. "So I think all of it is cleaned up."
CONTACT Ben van der Meer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4786. Find him on Facebook at /ADbvandermeer or on Twitter at @ADbvandermeer.