Setting today’s theme, environment and politics, the politics around the rail yard are examined.
October 26, 2006.
Name your poison
Just how polluted is the rail-yard redevelopment goldmine?
By R.V. Scheide
Size matters. Stroll through the downtown Sacamento rail yard and red-brick behemoths loom overhead, forgotten relics of a bygone industrial age. Here, more than a century ago, rough-hewn European immigrants toiled like Egyptian slaves to realize the vision of their era’s Pharaohs, the railroad barons who gazed across the landscape and saw not pyramids but a continent to conquer.
The faint odor of diesel fuel and creosote permeates the air.
Today, Sacramento’s civic leaders envision a new empire rising from the ashes of what was once the largest industrial site on the West Coast. Among the seven red-brick and corrugated-steel buildings left standing, now known as the “central shops,” they see teeming throngs of affluent shoppers eager to part with disposable income. In the near distance, a steel, glass and concrete coliseum completes the vision--a state-of-the-art sports arena where the gladiators of our age, the professional athletes of the NBA, engage in combat that, if not quite as mortal as their ancient counterparts, is of no less societal import.
This ambitious vision of competition and commerce has persisted for more than two decades. On Tuesday, November 7, Sacramento’s citizens once again will be given a chance to breathe it into life when they decide whether to provide up to $600 million in public funds to build a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. Local politicians hope the stadium will jump-start the long-stalled renovation of the rail yard, a 240-acre tract that is the largest piece of undeveloped urban real estate in the country.
Of course, there are many problems with this vision, not the least of which is this: The downtown Sacramento rail yard is one of the most polluted properties in the state of California.
Risky business Nearly 150 years of heavy industrial abuse have transformed what was pristine valley floor two short centuries ago into a blighted, toxic wasteland. How polluted is the rail yard? Name your poison. Literally dozens of hazardous chemicals and compounds contaminate the soil and the groundwater beneath it: arsenic, benzene, lead, tetrachloroethylene, diesel, gas, motor oil, acetone, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene, asbestos.
Today, when the wind kicks up a little too much dust, the few workers left at the site go home rather than risk breathing lead into their lungs. “The only occasional concern is that when it gets really windy, you have the potential for dust to get airborne,” says Paul Hammond, marketing director of California State Railroad Museum located in Old Sacramento, a stone’s throw away from the rail yard’s western boundary. A half-dozen museum workers use one of the old buildings to refurbish historic locomotives. “We’ve had days when we couldn’t work over there,” he says.