Stanislaus County landfill solution ordered

Source: The Modesto Bee, April 9, 2011
By: Garth Stapley

The government must have had its reasons, 40 years ago, for turning gently rolling land near a peaceful river bend into a dump.

Maybe no one wanted it for anything else. It likely was cheap and available, and — nine miles east of Modesto — out of sight, but within comfortable driving distance for pickups and garbage trucks.

In 20 years, the 168-acre Geer Road dump — with no bottom liner, allowing groundwater to rise and soak rotting garbage — swallowed about 4.5 million tons of waste.

Perhaps it’s a good thing for those government officials that they’re long gone, with few left to explain the inconceivably poor decision. But someone must answer for the sins of the fathers, state overseers say, or risk polluting the Tuolumne River with foul, cancer-causing agents from water moving underground.

The ire of state water officials was on display Friday in Sacramento when Stanislaus County representatives acknowledged that spending $7.24 million trying to contain contaminated groundwater from the defunct dump is far too little, too late.

“We have a big, big problem,” Lyle Hoag, a California Regional Water Quality Control Board member, scolded county officials. “An old, old problem. It’s such a huge problem because the county conducted a remedial program on the cheap for 20 years.”

Fed up with what they see as foot dragging by the county, state water officials on Friday formally approved a scathing cease-and-desist order with mandates for specific action meant to protect the river and nearby Hughson’s drinking wells. Mandates could require a ton of money the county doesn’t have but that might be raised if more garbage flows to the county’s active landfill on Fink Road, one official said.

State officials adopted last-minute revisions that could soften the blow, if the county’s 11th-hour strategy ends up working.

If it doesn’t, the county would be subject to the state’s harshest penalties, the river might carry nasty toxins through Modesto toward the ocean, and the peaceful river bend could become a statewide poster child for how not to build a dump.

• • •

Friday’s lengthy, high- level hearing — similar to a court proceeding, with attorneys introducing evidence and cross-examining witnesses — proved unusual in some aspects:

• The stern draft order, issued in November, caught the attention of the county’s highest-ranking officers. County attorneys briefed the Board of Supervisors and Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson sent an assistant, Stan Risen, to plead for leniency at the hearing.

“We want you to know that we’ve heard the message,” Risen told state water board members. “We’re very engaged and serious about addressing this matter. … But we’re also concerned about making wise use of the taxpayers’ money.”

• To further plead its case, the county hired a private Los Angeles attorney who took the rare step of deposing state water board staff members before the hearing.

“We’re not asking for a complete pass,” attorney Greg Newmark told the state water board. “We understand the regional board’s patience is wearing thin.”

• The county also hired an experienced landfill expert to review former consultants’ work. He sounded stunned to find vinyl chloride, a potent carcinogen, at high levels right next to the river — 46 times higher than the maximum allowed under state law, in one sampling.

“It’s much higher than anywhere else,” said Bryan Stirrat, whose company has advised on some 200 landfills and designed more than 50 landfill closure plans.

Tests also showed another cancer-causing agent, 1,1-dichloroethane, said state geologist Howard Hold, as well as inorganic contaminants.

• The county was lucky Stirrat’s testimony was allowed. The state received late data supporting Stirrat’s recommendations only two days before the hearing — seven weeks after a legal deadline, which already had been pushed back several weeks.

After a contentious dispute, state water board Chairwoman Kate Hart agreed to hear Stirrat, saying more information could not hurt a bad situation.

• Five hours into the hearing — beyond quitting time on a Friday evening — a small army of players on both sides huddled during a break and pieced together a compromise that water board members endorsed.

State officials agreed to drop demands that the county double its number of groundwater extraction and treatment wells. The county intends to suck out more gas from the soil, which its new expert believes is the main source of pollution. Also, the county will focus groundwater treatment on two monitoring wells near the river with the worst carcinogen readings.

Five of nine board members remained and all their votes were required to pass an action. All five agreed.

• • •

The complex technical dispute came down to whether it’s best to suck out gas from the soil or contaminated water.

The county’s experts want to do the former, saying methane concentration is the worst cause of the problem and the cheapest to fix.

Although the county has sunk 83 gas extraction wells, about 60 more are needed to do the job right, Stirrat said.

“The county is asking for a little time and patience. We’ve got to take care of the source. We can’t just hope it will go away,” he said.

But state officials contended that expensive wells that extract and treat groundwater are needed. The county installed 13, but they’re 300 feet to 1,200 feet apart and pull water from a radius of just 40 feet, allowing plenty of groundwater to escape as it moves through sandy soil toward the river.

County officials two years ago proposed the groundwater method if efforts didn’t work, state officials said, and they haven’t. The county should double the number of extraction wells, the state contended.

“This is the path the board chose,” attorney Patrick Pulupa said. “(County officials) saw the price tag, they balked. It’s been two years, and now they want two more years. They’ve failed to contain the plume, and they’ve thoroughly failed to define the plume, and it’s seeping across the river and approaching domestic wells.”

At its current velocity, the plume might have traveled underground as much as 1.8 miles, said Wendy Wyels, the state’s environmental program manager. Treating only gas in the soil would not clean one drop of tainted groundwater, state officials said.

“We believe our proposal is the superior technical option,” said Newmark on behalf of the county.

The county’s strategy would cost about $3.85 million, and the county will have set aside $4.34 million by June 2013, said Jami Aggers, the county’s assistant environmental resources director.

The state’s strategy would cost about $4.5 million, bankrupting the fund, she said.

Asked how the county might raise more to fight contamination, Aggers said, “The most viable option is securing additional waste flow to our landfill.”

She said that would require cooperation from Modesto, which has ownership interest in the Geer and Fink road dumps; a portion of the fees collected at Fink Road is meant to correct problems at the Geer site.

Risen later told The Bee that leaders remain committed to a pledge against importing garbage. Perhaps more can be generated from within the county, or fees might have to go up, he said.

County representatives said they would not abandon groundwater treatment, but would concentrate on cleaning toxins at the worst locations while gathering better data to develop a future strategy.

Pulupa, the state attorney, said his agency will be closely watching.

He won’t hesitate, he said, to escalate enforcement from a cease-and-desist order to an administrative civil liability, the state’s most serious penalty with steep fines.

“This board doesn’t care,” said Hart, weighing state versus county proposals. “We just want the water cleaned up.”

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