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Posted on May 31, 2012

Watsonville: With a Last-Minute Helping Hand, Cleanup Project Finishes in Time for Celebration

By Matt Nauman

As PG&E crews were working hard to complete an environmental cleanup project at a popular Mexican restaurant in Watsonville before the Cinco de Mayo holiday, a car wreck threatened to scuttle the deadline effort.

But, thanks to some quick thinking and assistance from PG&E, that didn’t happen.

BEFORE: An automobile accident damaged the front of a Watsonville restaurant, just as PG&E crews were about to leave the site of an environmental project.

Long ago, the 618 Main Street property in downtown Watsonville was a portion of a manufactured gas plant (MGP). Thousands of plants such as these were found in cities across America and around the world. They used oil or coal to make gas that was delivered locally for cooking, heating and lights. This was before the transportation of gas through interstate pipelines was possible.

How long ago? Gas plants were popular in the late 1800s and generally were gone by the 1920s and 1930s.

That’s what happened in Watsonville. The gas plant opened in 1871 and closed in 1905. From 1905 to 1931, the 618 Main Street property was used for a variety of purposes, including a school and an auto dealership. Then, in 1931, the Coast Counties Gas and Electric Company opened a customer-service center at 618 Main Street property.

PG&E acquired Coast Counties Gas and Electric in 1954, and the facility became a PG&E service center. PG&E had its facility there until 1989 when the site was leased and became a restaurant.

AFTER: PG&E and its contractors made quick work of repairs before they leave the site.

Under the direction of a division of the state Environmental Protection Agency, PG&E has been voluntarily working in recent years to make sure the public isn’t exposed to any material remaining from when the site was used a century ago as a gas plant.

To make sure, work crews:

  • Removed paving and some shrubs from behind the building
  • Used a small backhoe to take out 300 cubic yards of impacted soil
  • Brought in clean soil to backfill excavated areas
  • Constructed a new concrete driveway and parking lot  and added a new storm-water drain system
  • Planted new landscaping

(As with all such projects, PG&E and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control worked closely with the surrounding neighbors, county and city leaders to keep them apprised of project progress.)

Completing a 10-week project

Work took place for about 10 weeks this year, and was scheduled to end in early May. That was important to Stella Romo, the owner of the Jalisco Mexican Restaurant, as the entire Cinco de Mayo weekend is one of her busiest times of the year.

Romo, who has operated the Jalisco restaurant at the site since 1989 and who now owns the building, was very appreciative of the quality of the work done by PG&E and its crews.

“They were really sensitive to my business,” she said. “They kept tabs with me to make sure things ran smoothly.”

But then, the night before crews were getting ready to leave the site, a two-car accident took place on Main Street and much of the front of the restaurant was damaged.

PG&E (and Pivox, its contractor on the project) took immediate action.

“It was so strange that it happened the day they completed everything,” Romo said.

Before and after photos tell the tale. Right after the auto accident, the front of the restaurant was littered with broken clay pots, branches from bushes and piles of dirt. The building façade suffered slight damage as did some outdoor plumbing.

But, by the end of that day, Friday, May 4, everything looked better. The building façade was patched, new clay pots and plants were brought in, the front entrance way was swept and washed and the restaurant’s neon “OPEN” sign shone brightly.

“They did an outstanding job,” said Romo. “They worked around the clock. They really didn’t have to do that.”

To have spent 10 weeks working at the Jalisco and then not to help out the restaurant right before an important weekend wasn’t imaginable, said Stephanie Isaacson, a director in PG&E’s environmental remediation department.

“Stella has been very patient with us through the construction.  It was the right thing to do, and we were happy to do it,” she said.

“PG&E takes its environmental responsibilities seriously,” said Isaacson. “And it’s important that we work closely with our customers, especially those whose homes or businesses are affected by our projects, to make sure we are good neighbors.”

Making a dream come true

Romo ran a Jalisco restaurant in another location in Watsonville, but it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

As a little girl, she remembers coming to the PG&E customer center at 618 Main Street with her Mom to pay her family’s utility bill.

“I remember telling my Mom that this building would be a beautiful Mexican restaurant,” Romo said. “My Mom would laugh at me and say, ‘Yes, it’s a beautiful building.’ “

Stella Romo was 13 years old at the time. In 1989, she opened her new Jalisco restaurant in that same “beautiful” building.

“You dream a dream and you never know when something will come true,” she said. “I have never forgotten that.”

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