The potential spreading of by-product waste material from ConAgra’s aerated ponds onto Oakdale farmlands is going before the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors at a public meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The meeting will be at 9:15 a.m. at the Basement Chambers, 1010 10th St., Modesto, where the board will conduct a public hearing to consider adoption of a Negative Declaration for the ConAgra permit application.
According to website information on the CEQA process, a Negative Declaration is a document that states upon completion of an initial study, that there is no substantial evidence that the project would have a significant impact on the environment.
Material dredged from the ConAgra facility’s aerated ponds is to be used as soil amendments on 13 farmland and orchard properties owned by local farmer John Brichetto. There are three ponds on the ConAgra site but it is one pond that is most relevant to this issue. The pond is 20 feet deep and has about 10 feet of solids in it. The amount of material that needs to be cleaned out of the pond is said to be 60,000 tons, or 2,400 truckloads.
The proposed project is controversial because the ConAgra pond has not been dredged in approximately 20 years. ConAgra has owned the facility since 1991 but ConAgra spokesperson Bob Kula acknowledged that they’re not sure when the pond pit was last cleaned out. The tomato processor needs to get the pond cleaned out in order to operate its business.
ConAgra entered an agreement with John Brichetto to take the pond sediment material to spread over several of his Oakdale area properties, some of which border the Stanislaus River and/or are surrounded by densely populated residential areas.
A standing-room-only public meeting was held in Oakdale on July 21 where residents voiced their concerns about odors, well-water contamination and runoff, flies, other pests, and heavy truck traffic.
The application states that the material is supposed to be spread and disced into the soil over the course of several weeks. Following that, there will also be year-round intermittent dredging of the pond matter that will then be applied to the land. It is to be spread at agronomic rates.
Kula said in a prior interview with The Leader that most of the material in the pond mud is organic, mainly dirt and some tomato particles. There is also flume water residue that is in the treatment ponds. It is the rinse water and mud from when the tomatoes are rinsed before processing.
Part of the CEQA process includes the comments from the public meeting and comments from other state agencies. Then there is a review of the comments to see if there needs to be changes or mitigation.
Below is a partial listing of comments from public entities and private individuals related to this issue.
The Department of Fish and Game has stated concerns with impacts to waterways like the Stanislaus River because some lands are adjacent to the river, as well as the effect to the San Joaquin River due to channels and canals that are on other properties. They listed concerns as pollutant discharge, water quality, and effects on plant and wildlife. They also said adequate buffers must be implemented. Further statements included: the project has potential to impact the threatened Swainson’s Hawk, pollution of waters from increased runoff, increased sediment, toxic runoff and other constituents of concern, and impaired movement of wildlife.
The Stanislaus County Food Processing By-Products Reuse Committee commented that Stanislaus County’s program is a model for other counties and they’re concerned that this goes beyond what is contemplated in the program. Their statement says that the material does not constitute “traditional” food processing by-product. They also stated that additional testing for metals needs to be done, as the application states that the material doesn’t contain hazardous waste but doesn’t state if it contains hazardous substances, and it provides no assurances that runoff won’t affect soil or groundwater. The proposed project is also close to urban areas and will bring negative attention to an otherwise successful program, and it may threaten the status of the county’s entire program, according to the comments.
The Oakdale school district commented that it has properties near and adjacent to the farm properties where spreading will occur. The comments were that the material should be tested for pesticide residues from rinsing, organic compounds, pathogens, and other compounds that could be hazardous on becoming airborne due to transport, discing, drying, etc.
Another public comment said that Brichetto had a cited violation from the county Regional Water Quality Board five years ago related to improperly spreading ConAgra by-product.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District using traffic calculations said residents within 125 meters of the project would have health risks greater than 10 in 1 million, which is the significance threshold.
Another comment said not enough testing has been done to show possibilities of toxic waste, hormones, and pesticides.
Introduction of salts from processing of by-products into groundwater is of high concern to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board.
Another comment says none of the properties comply with ConAgra’s consultant’s report for containment of runoff.
One commenter cited the safety of children in residential areas (more walkers, more big trucks, and truckers usually paid per load so they may drive faster), flies, mosquitoes, water contamination through chemicals and minerals, noise, traffic and congestion, dust, smells, other unforeseen nuisances, some streets are in poor repair and can’t handle extra heavy commercial truck traffic, resulting in expenses incurred by homeowners and taxpayers.
The California League of Food Processors said that tomatoes, beans, and soils rinsed from them are not toxic or hazardous, adding that this is beneficial reuse and poses no risk.
In order for a Negative Declaration to be approved, these issues have to be satisfactorily addressed and/or mitigated.