ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Finding Beauty in the Blight: A fresh look at the Balloon Track Tract


See also these features at the end of this cover story:

From marshland to post-industrial wasteland: Historical timeline of the Balloon Tract

What's next for the Balloon Tract?

THE BALLOON TRACK TRACT, that slice of land between Eureka's waterfront and the elbow of Broadway and Highway 101, is a mystery to many. Even its name is confusing. (The "tract" actually got its name from the railroad "track" that borders the site in the shape of a giant hot-air balloon. [See aerial photo in article below.])

What was once a bustling industrial hub on the waterfront has fallen on hard times. The railway yard slipped into disuse years ago. The structures have fallen into disrepair. Oil soaks the ground. Weeds run rampant. Since overgrown vegetation and abandoned buildings provide a haven for Eureka's homeless and a party place for drug users, most people steer clear of the area except those who sneak in to illegally dump loads of trash. [A historical timeline of the Balloon Tract appears after this article]

But Cindy Hooper [at right, in above title photo] an art professor at College of the Redwoods who specializes in delicate oil paintings of "overlooked and maligned places," landscapes strewn with trash or marred by broken buildings finds beauty amid the blight. To celebrate the much maligned parcel, the artist/professor became the prime mover behind The Balloon Tract Project: An Exploration of Misintentional Landscape Use, an installation that opened last week down the street from the old railyard at Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery in Old Town.

[photo of painting by Cindy Hooper] "Residual Appeal 2000," painting by Cindy Hooper.

The balloon-shaped tract has been in the spotlight several times over the last few years. In 1999 the owner, Union Pacific, agreed to sell to the giant retailer, Wal-Mart. Controversy erupted over the wisdom of big box stores in general and, in particular, using a piece of land adjacent to the waterfront for retail purposes. The issue was ultimately resolved at the ballot box with the defeat of Measure J, an initiative that would have changed the zoning for the area to commercial.

Last year the tract hit the headlines again when the Eureka City Council shocked many observers by refusing a $3 million gift from businessman Rob Arkley and his wife, Cherie, who sits on the council. The money was to be used to purchase the parcel, clean it up and develop it for light industry, a park and a parking lot.

Hooper and her team of College of the Redwoods professors from several disciplines who worked on the current "Balloon Tract Project" steered clear of those controversies, however. They focused instead on the area's landscape and the way the land historically has been used and abused.

Hooper sees the interplay "of beauty and blight" as one of the primary subjects in her work.

"These overlooked and maligned places and objects can actually have a very formal abstract beauty," she said in a conversation at the gallery where she was supervising the exhibit installation. "They are full of meaning and aesthetic merits and can be explored and understood through a variety of different perspectives.

"Humans have had a tremendous impact on the land and to avoid that in art is being overly idealistic. There are certainly many places here in Humboldt County where you can look at a view and not see human intervention, but in most places it's there."

Hooper drew inspiration from an organization called the Center for Land Use Interpretation based in Los Angeles, an interdisciplinary group combining art, geography, sociology and other disciplines.

[photo by Jim Pegoda] "Pink Shoe (I didn't Place it There)" by Jim Pegoda

"When I walked into the galleries and offices for the Center for Land Use Interpretation [CLUI] in Los Angeles, I said, `Whoa, this is wonderful.' They were expressing in a conceptual way the same issues I'm trying to express with paint. I felt an immediate kinship."

Even before Hooper found out about the CLUI she was exploring the Balloon Tract as a landscape painter.

"I've been a painter of industrial sites for a while. I don't know why, but they inspire me. I'm interested in examining the way humanity shapes the land by their actions on a grand scale that can be comparable to the forces of nature."

She is also part of a second show running this month at the First Street Gallery. Disruptive Topographies features her work and paintings by two kindred spirits, Erling Sjovold and Jerry Smith. All the work was produced during a CLUI residency at an abandoned military base in Wendover, Utah.

"A lot of the motifs that you find at the Balloon Tract, the oil drums, the barrels, the piles of trash are like what you find at Wendover," said Hooper. "It's like 100 square miles of Balloon Tract.

"I think what most fascinates me is the juxtaposition of incredible natural beauty and ravaged industrial places the remnants of our post-industrial consumer-based culture. The stark interplay of degradation, reclamation and natural beauty is an ironic contrast that I find of interest as an artist.

"The Center is very much interested in abandoned and overlooked industrial sites and in investigating these places," she said, adding that CLUI has funded a show similar to the Balloon Tract Project at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center dealing with industrial sites around San Francisco Bay.

"These are areas that are absolutely essential to the infrastructure of our culture, but they're also places people don't want to deal with," she said.

"One of the things we found was that this is a spot that many consider as blight, yet it has a value," said Dave Bazard [at left, in top title photo], a geology professor who worked on the project. "And that value is not necessarily just as a site for future industrial activity, for a Wal-Mart or even a park. It's a value for its history, for what's in its subsurface, for the geologic story that can tell us how our area was shaped, the archaeological and sociological aspect.

"The whole Balloon Tract, everything west of Broadway, was once a salt marsh similar to what you see as you go over the Samoa Bridge on Gunther Island and Woodley Island," said Bazard. "A railroad was put around it and eventually it was filled in."

He found that an examination of the area's geology spilled over into a history of its uses and into an examination of the pollution and its clean up.

His job was not an easy one. When he went to the Office of Environmental Health and asked for the Balloon Tract file, they showed him a four-foot long shelf full of reports from consultants. His task was to boil down the mountain of data to a few "digestible" panels that a layman can understand.

Bazard concluded from his research that by the mid-'70s, the use of the rail yard was in serious decline. The unused buildings were falling apart, the old roundhouse had collapsed.

"That was also around the time when they first started looking at the run-off from the site," said Bazard. Every time it rained, oil and grease that had spilled on the ground over the years would wash out of the contaminated soil, draining oily water into the slough, then into the bay.

"Up until that time the thought was, `Well this is industry. This is what we do.' It was accepted. As environmental awareness mushroomed in the early '70s, the thinking changed."

In 1974 the Regional Water Quality Control Board took a look at the site and did not like what it found. Southern Pacific was asked to take countermeasures that included installation of an oil-water separator.

Further remediation since then has removed the bulk of the oil that was getting into the bay. And since Union Pacific only uses the site as storage for a few rusting locomotives and cars, there is no new pollution associated with the railroad.

"There is still industrial pollution," said Bazard, but that's not the only problem. "Even though it's no longer an industrial site, the pollution has been incrementally added to by dumping. People leave oil drums, then there are the lead acid batteries from cars."

At this point the only clean up of hydrocarbon contamination is what is termed "passive remediation," relying on the natural breakdown process. Any future development will require a major clean-up process.

A prime example is Bunker C, the old oil storage tank.

"You walk in there and a black ooze comes up, so obviously there's still something in there," said Bazard. He explained that a cement pad underneath prevents contamination of ground water, "but at some point someone will have to remove it all.

"Whoever takes it on will have some serious work to do. When you buy commercial property that's contaminated you accept the liability for cleaning up the contamination."

"But we don't want to overdramatize or sensationalize the problems with contamination," said Hooper. "This is certainly not a superfund cleanup site. There have been remediation efforts and there are ongoing monitoring efforts. In the large view [the contamination] is not that egregious."

Bazard pointed to other sites along that waterfront that are much worse, places with lingering PCBs, lead contamination, heavy metals and other toxic substances that don't seem to be a problem in the Balloon Tract.

A portion of the exhibit supervised by C/R biology professor Ben Hawkins examines the ecology of the area.

The plant life is a classic example of invasive non-native species overrunning natives. Himalaya berries, pampas grass and fennel are among the non-native plants that have colonized the site.

The slough may have been converted into a drainage ditch, but it's still the home to egrets, herons, kingfishers, possums and even otters.

There's a touch of tongue-in-cheek humor at work when the exhibit discusses the area's other inhabitants. For example, Hooper refers to the homeless encampments that dot the site as "nests."

While she concedes that there was no study to establish firm numbers, a "casual estimate" is that 20-30 people call the area home.

"I think that the general public sees the Balloon Tract as some sort of a problem, but in a way it solves a problem for the community in that it does provide a quiet refuge for homeless people where they are out of sight."

Both Hooper and Bazard emphasize that the intent behind their project was to present facts about the area in a neutral fashion, not to make some social or political statement.

"It's easy to take a vacant lot with homeless people and some pollution and tell people it's bad," said Bazard. "The challenge was to draw the value out of it and lead people to go beyond black-and-white thinking.

"Understanding a place like this takes some thought. There may be certain sadness to the site, but there are not necessarily good guys and bad guys. You have to get beyond the controversy and knee-jerk reactions."

The hope is that the project will lead to meaningful discussion in the community and to new inquiries.

"The more we researched, the more we discovered," said Hooper. "We invite the public to take up the components of the project that are not finished, to find this space and others like it and find the meaning in these overlooked and underutilized places."

The Balloon Tract Project: An Exploration of Misintentional Landscape Use will be on display through Nov. 3 in the East Room of Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery, 422 1st St., Eureka.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the gallery presents a talk by Matt Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation on Thursday, Oct. 25, at 6 p.m. Exhibiting artist Erling Sjovold will give a gallery talk on Saturday, November 3, at 4 p.m. For more information call 443-6363. The Website for the Center for Land Use Interpretation is at www.clui.com.

From marshland to post-industrial wasteland

[aerial photo of Balloon Tract]
Aerial photo by Merle Shuster, 1952

1850 -- Marshland and a network of sloughs occupy the site west of the Eureka town site.

By 1888 -- The western side of the marsh is filled and a bayside rail line established. The tidal marsh and Clark Slough remain undeveloped.

By 1915 -- Eastern and northern portions of the tidal marsh are filled with a mixture of silt, sand and gravel. The site is used as a railroad yard for refueling and repair. Bunker C, an oil storage tank, is constructed.

1931 to 1939 -- Southeastern corner of the site (near Washington Street and Broadway) leased by Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. to Richfield Oil Co. and General Petroleum Co. and two above ground fuel storage tanks are installed.

1946-1947 -- The last remaining tidal marsh is diked off. Dredged material from the bay is used as fill.

1954 -- Above ground storage tanks installed in the Bunker C site to store diesel fuel used by modern locomotive engines. By this time Clark Slough appears as a drainage ditch.

1974 -- The Regional Water Quality Control Board orders spill prevention, control and a countermeasure plan. Northwest Pacific Railroad estimates in a report that 5,000 gallons per day of oily storm water is discharged into Humboldt Bay with rain runoff.

1975 -- The water board orders discharge of oily storm water runoff discontinued and countermeasures for release of petroleum hydrocarbons to Humboldt Bay implemented.

1976 -- NWPR installs an oil collection system and above ground oil-water separator.

1984 -- The on-site diesel storage tanks are no longer in use. A tank truck is used to fuel locomotives.

1986 -- Southern Pacific Transportation Co. purchases NWPR, but discontinues operations at the Eureka rail yard site. Eureka Railroad Co., formed, leases the railroad yard from Southern Pacific to continue railroad line operation.

1987 -- Aerial photographs show the site as mostly inactive. The roundhouse has been demolished, many of the buildings and other structures dismantled or in disrepair, and most of the southern area overgrown with brush and grass. The fuel distribution facilities have been removed.

1988 -- Site use has decreased significantly. Water board order for oil collection and discharge expires and discharge system is abandoned.

[photo of disabled oil-water separator] [At left, a disabled oil-water separator.]

June 1988 -- At the request of Public Health Department, Southern Pacific arranges to have four underground gasoline storage tanks removed. No detectable concentrations of petroleum-associated compounds are found in the soil surrounding the tanks. However, groundwater samples contain up to 0.69 milligrams per liter (mg/l) benzene, 1.10 mg/l toulene, and 1.2 mg/l xylenes, all components of petroleum. An environmental consultant states that the contamination is likely from an off-site underground storage tank to the east (near Broadway). The tanks are removed and no further investigation is conducted.

July-Nov. 1988 -- An environmental impact statement is prepared for construction of the Humboldt County Jail at the Balloon Track site. An investigation of soil and groundwater contamination from shallow soil surveys and groundwater monitoring wells indicates the presence of oil, grease and petroleum hydrocarbons. Three samples exceed safety thresholds for lead. The environmental consultant recommends that the site be cleaned-up before the property is developed. Another site is chosen for the jail.

1989 -- The water board requests that Southern Pacific Transportation Co. assess soil and groundwater quality beneath the Balloon Track Site. An environmental consulting company is retained to assess the site, remove potentially hazardous materials and make recommendations for further clean up.

1989-1990 -- Consultants hired by Southern Pacific perform preliminary investigations and cleanup activities at the site; about 980 gallons of uncharacterized oil are removed from the site. Waste materials are either transported to a recycling facility or disposed at a facility in Kettleman City, Calif. Approximately 3,500 gallons of oily wastewater are removed from the oil-water separator system and transported to a recycling facility. The inoperative oil-water separator is sealed.

June 1990 -- Aerial photograph shows that most of the railroad tracks, except along the northwestern site boundary, have been removed.

1999 -- Soil and groundwater analyses of samples collected near former underground storage tank show contamination levels below legal limits. Accordingly, active remediation in this area is deemed unnecessary.

1999 to 2001 -- Continued site evaluation. Consultants hired by Wal-Mart had intended to study the presence of both heavy metals and arsenic in a study proposed in 1999. Consultants for Union Pacific (formerly Southern Pacific Transportation Co.) continue to monitor wells quarterly and report the results to the water board.

Summarized from maps and aerial photographs displayed in the "Balloon Tract" exhibit at HSU's First Street Gallery and from the reports of Geomatrix, an environmental geology consultant to Southern Pacific.

What's next for the Balloon Tract?

With 29 to 30 usable acres adjacent to the Broadway/Highway 101 corridor and the bay, the Balloon Tract is ripe for development, but the property has to be cleaned up first that will not be an easy task.

The city and property owners, Union Pacific, are looking at clean-up in three phases. Phase one, already under way, is clearing some of the trash and vegetation.

"The summer of 2000 we had a couple of fires," said City Manager Dave Tyson. "One was kind of major -- three or four acres within the Balloon Tract itself. We think it was transient-caused. It created quite a bit of concern for the [Eureka] Chamber of Commerce, and of course our fire marshal and businesses in the area, because it came fairly close to the businesses that operate near there."

Tyson said one of the city's primary concerns is the portion of Eureka's population that makes frequent use of the property -- transients and drug users.

"As part of our abatement process with Union Pacific we've indicated our fears for employees who have to go in there -- police mainly, but also firemen who have to go in the because of drug overdoses or fires, problems that occur."

Union Pacific applied to the Coastal Commission and the Department of Fish and Game and received permission to remove some vegetation. Last spring rushes, berries, fennel and other foliage that covered much of the parcel were cut back. Under the terms of the permit, what was done was akin to mowing a lawn -- and the results were about as permanent.

"Because of the time of the year when it was cut, a lot of it has grown back," Tyson acknowledged.

Phase two of the clean-up is removal of debris -- piles of garbage, dirt, concrete and other construction materials dumped there illegally. Union Pacific removed some of the piles along with the vegetation, but like the re-emerging weeds, it did not end the problem.

"It's a big vacant unpatrolled piece of property and there has been quite a lot of dumping there," Tyson said. The debris removal is also complicated since some of it is contaminated, which requires testing and more elaborate disposal than simply hauling it to a landfill site.

"Then there's the removal of the buildings," Tyson continued. "There are three or four buildings on the site that need to be removed and [the owners] are seeking permits to do so. The city is working with Union Pacific to take them down as they are a fire danger as well as danger to the public as an attractive nuisance."

The city will act as lead agency seeking permits from the four or five overlapping government regulatory agencies involved, including the Coastal Commission.

"The final phase, the&nbspclean-up of the site, will require Union Pacific to work with the city and more importantly with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board," Tyson said.

"The [water] board has quite a bit of say over the property because it is contaminated. It is known to be affecting groundwater with those contaminates. Not that it's creating a problem with drinking water because that all comes through our water treatment plant. But there is the possibility that it could be affecting the bay water as well as the aquifers beneath the Balloon Track."

And once the site is cleaned up, what then?

"At this point there is no development proposed there," said Tyson. One problem with planning a development is the zoning. Because it was once a rail site governed by a public utility, the zoning is "P" for public, which limits development.

Schools, city halls, jails and wastewater treatment plants are among acceptable public uses. Aside from a scuttled plan for relocating the jail there, no other public use has been proposed. And it's unlikely that anyone will resurrect the rail yard.

"Union Pacific is no longer operating a rail operation in the area. A few years ago the Northern Coast Rail Authority indicated that it has no need for the rail yard other than [use of] the rails that run along the side of the property."

While the public rejected Wal-Mart's Measure J, which would have forced a change in the zoning from public to commercial, it seems likely that a zoning change of some sort will be required for development.

"The city, working with some interested groups -- Friends of Humboldt, the Northcoast Business Leaders Roundtable, our planning commission, our redevelopment agency -- have been talking about changing the zoning of the property and what that would mean," said Tyson. "That has yet to take off as far as discussion in the community, but I'm sure it will."

What uses are being suggested?

"Industrial uses, not heavy industry, but light industrial manufacturing. And there's talk about saving some of it for recreational use."

Whatever happens there will be under the watchful eye of the public agencies that protect the coastal zone and wildlife habitat.

"Most likely if development was to occur there you would have to mitigate for the loss of the marshes with more wetlands," said Tyson.

"It's an area we need to work on as a community. The community has to get involved and provide some guidance to the elected officials and staff as to how it fits into the city's development. It is a key piece of property; it's one of the largest available in our community for development. We need to define what we'd like to do with it."




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