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Residents Air Out Concerns Over Pond Mud
Controversy Simmering
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In this Leader file photo, a truck hauls tomatoes into the ConAgra facility. The South Yosemite Avenue plant was recently conducting required emissions testing that prompted questions and concerns regarding an elevated noise level in the area.
A public meeting on July 21 filled the Oakdale Library with more than 70 concerned citizens regarding the potential spreading of by-product rinse mud dredged from the ConAgra facility’s aerated ponds to be used as soil amendments on 13 farmland and orchard properties throughout the local area owned by Oakdale farmer John Brichetto.

Con Agra spokesperson Bob Kula reported that there are three ponds on the site but it is one pond that is relevant to this issue. The pond is 20 feet deep and, he said, has about 10 feet of solids in it and that the tomato processor needs to get the pond cleaned out in order to operate their business.

A presentation was given by Vicki Jones, a Sr. Resource Management Specialist for the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources at the public meeting, but questions still remain in the minds of some residents.

Con Agra had a lab analysis performed on samples for “selected” elements and nutrients of the mud and presented the results in a spiral notebook to potentially interested farmers in the area. Jones reported that county does not perform its own testing on any issue, it is up to the applicants or responsible parties to do so and to provide the information to the county. That is leaving some asking questions about what else is in the pond material.

Several residents spoke at the meeting and representatives from ConAgra and Brichetto were also present. The majority of the individuals who spoke were concerned about how they would be affected by the potential spreading of the by-product waste material including malodor, the draw of mosquitoes and flies, as well as water runoff and potential contamination of ground water through the leaching of the by-product material down through the soil.

ConAgra has owned the facility since 1991 but Kula acknowledged that they’re not sure when the pond pit was last cleaned out. Regardless, he said, the pond needs to be dredged. The amount of material that needs to be cleaned out of the pond is said to be 60,000 tons, or 2,400 truckloads.

Kula said 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.


Concerns, Responses

Oakdale resident Herb Moran lives in the Rivendell Hollow subdivision on the west side of Oakdale. It is bordered on the north by an orchard owned by Brichetto. Moran said that the majority of the residents in his neighborhood feel that the area that surrounds the orchard is too densely populated with homes, an elementary school, three churches, and a daycare all nearby, and that the by-product should not be spread there. Residents of that area are circulating a written response and gathering signatures in opposition to having the material spread on this particular parcel.

Moran said that the residents of his neighborhood don’t begrudge Brichetto’s right to farm practices, they all signed agreements prior to moving in, but the prospect of having this material spread nearby has them concerned.

“Many (of Brichetto’s) parcels are directly adjacent to the river, city and county wells…” Moran noted.

Brichetto said that there are spreading requirements not only from the county but that the crop dictates them as well. He said that any materials he applies are put out at rates equal to the crop needs so as not to overwhelm the crop with elements. It’s applied at agronomic rates approved for the needs of the crop.

Moran stated that it seems that there has not been sufficient depth analysis and range of testing specific to carcinogens or other pathogens on this by-product mud.

“It is evident that Con Agra and/or the County has not fully tested the range of what’s in these pits,” Moran said. “…This has got to be transparent… Speaking as a business person, nobody wants the exposure to long-term liability.”

Kula said that ConAgra has met all the criteria set forth by the county so far.

“We’ve tried to be very transparent. We’ve tried to do this the right way. We’ve contacted the county (first)…” Kula said, adding that they did significant initial testing on the samples.

He said that ConAgra felt it was important to get feedback from the community and that if there are significant issues then ConAgra will address them. Based on the concerns that were expressed at the public meeting, he said, they are reviewing and addressing those issues up front.

“We care very deeply about the community,” Kula said. “…We are following every step to make sure this is a positive… We want to make sure this works out for all parties.”


Water Matters

As far as the moisture content of the material, Kula said that it would vary depending upon the method of removal, but that the moisture is going to be “very, very low.” Kula and Brichetto both reported how costly it is to move wet material versus dry material. Kula also noted that when the matter is too wet, it’s too difficult to spread and that a drier material keeps odor and bug issues under control. Brichetto also said that a farmer can’t get onto his fields when they’re wet.

Valley Home resident Mike Monschein lives on a property off of 26 Mile Road, across from another Brichetto property. He said he’s concerned about his well water, water runoff, odor, and flies. He said that he’s a concerned parent and doesn’t want his children or his wife to become sick.

“My concern, first of all, is it shouldn’t be spread,” Monschein said. “John (Brichetto) is a good neighbor, Hunt’s (ConAgra) has been a great company for the City of Oakdale.”

However, he feels that ConAgra should have made a presentation to the community to present all the facts and that ConAgra should prove that the material is safe.

“Why hasn’t the county been out there (to ConAgra) and gotten the samples?” he asked.

As stated earlier, the county does not do such testing.

Monschein also said that he talked to Brichetto about the prospect of spreading the by-product mud and that Brichetto told him that it’s just topsoil.

“It’s not just topsoil, after collecting for so long (in the pond),” Monschein countered. “…If it’s so good, why don’t they let it go down into the sewer?”

He said he’d rather see the byproduct hauled out to open fields where it can be well disked or on land that grows other crops such as oats. He said he doesn’t believe that it can be disked in very well in orchards between the trees.

“A dairyman has to contain all their water runoff, contain the odor, contain the flies…” Monschein said, adding that it’s not right that the standards would be different for this.

If Brichetto uses the by-product, the county requirements are that he has 24 hours to spread it at agronomic rates after receiving it and it must be disked into the soil within 48 to 72 hours of it being spread.

Jones also said that there would be testing throughout the time period that the material is being applied.


Recycling Okay, But…

Kula said that there is still cost analysis work to be done. Cost can vary greatly depending on what the county dictates. What will impact the cost is when and how it’s dredged, where the by-product will be taken, and so on. It is known that taking the pond mud to the county landfill is not a desirable option by either ConAgra or the county.

Moran said that most of the people in attendance at the meeting support the idea of recycling and by-product use. However, he and Monschein both stated their concern about how things would be resolved “after-the-fact” in case something goes awry. They both felt that the county presentation was inadequate in the sense of providing the specific information they wanted and needed.

Monschein feels that if his well water is compromised that doing something such as providing his family with bottled water doesn’t resolve the problem.

“We have a little slice of heaven out there…” Monschein said. “You wouldn’t want to see it in your backyard.”

Brichetto acknowledged that the worries people have expressed are “all warranted concerns” but that he’s confident in the material’s safety.

“As a farmer, I don’t want to contaminate my soils, I don’t want to contaminate my property,” he said.

He said he obtained a deep sample of the material and he described it as piling like dirt, not runny like mud.

“This is not an army ammunition plant, it’s a tomato plant… a food plant,” Brichetto said, adding that the material is not rotting tomatoes, it’s soil that was rinsed off the tomatoes from when they were trucked from the fields, plus some tomato particles.

“Topsoil should go back on the farm. It has some valuable nutrients, that to replace, I’d (have to) buy a petroleum-base fertilizer,” he said. “…It should stay local.”

Brichetto reported that there is a limited window to apply materials to an orchard because of the growing season and harvest time. Right now, he said, the mature trees are heavy with nuts so it does not make sense for him to go into those orchards now to do any spreading. He said that some of the by-product material would be spread on open farmland prior to tree planting, as well as land with immature trees and the mature trees after harvest.

Jones said that there is a CEQA process that they have to go through, which includes the comments from the public meeting, and other state agencies have an opportunity to comment as well. Then there is a review of the comments to see if there needs to be changes or mitigation. She was unable to give a specific timeline of the process because it is dependent on the types of comments and mitigations.

“We’ve heard a lot of the points that have been made,” Kula said. “…This is about transparency. This is, we think, a good thing for the community.”

If all conditions are met then the permit would be approved and it will have an annual expiration on Nov. 30 of each year. Jones said the Environmental Resources Department will look at the information related to the inspections and testing of the site to see if it was in compliance in order for renewal of the permit.

For more information go to the county’s Environmental Resources website at