Modesto -- Tests continue to show no barium danger west of Modesto where leaders want to build a freeway, officials said this week while crews showed neighbors how they obtain groundwater samples.
There have been "no surprises" in every-other-month analyses since testing resumed in March, said Sam Haack, project manager for the California Department of Transportation.
Neighbors, some concerned about health risks, repeatedly asked to observe testing over many months. Three finally were accommodated Wednesday, outnumbered by representatives of various government agencies with a stake in public health or road projects.
About 50 years ago, pond-bottom dirt was piled in linear berms south of Kansas Avenue to someday form the base of an elevated freeway segment from Highway 99 to Highway 132 and the Bay Area. Momentum for the project is building.
So is anxiety among some neighbors, whose inquiries have prompted renewed testing, strategizing and town hall meetings. Some are worried that barium in the dirt could seep into groundwater or be released into the air when construction starts.
Julie Miller Brughelli, 59, has gathered information on 90 longtime neighbors who died or suffered serious illness, and she would not approach the test site Wednesday. When she was young, Brughelli and two other rebels would smoke cigarettes near the dirt in defiance of a Sunday school warning.
Several decades later, one suffers from lupus, while Brughelli and the other are breast cancer survivors, she said. "It takes time for those chemicals to do their nasty work," Brughelli said.
Experts say testing shows no cause for alarm, and they invited the curious Wednesday in a show of transparency.
Employees of environmental consulting firm Geocon Inc. lowered a measuring tape with a sensor into Test Well No. 2 after unlocking its cap. They hit water 33.2 feet down. They then lowered a tube with a submersible battery-powered pump to purge the well, voiding about 2½ gallons into a bucket.
"A clear sample like this is indicative of a groundwater well that's working well," said company president John Juhrend, holding a small bottle with clear liquid from the pump.
After a few minutes of letting groundwater refill the well, workers took samples, which were chilled in a cooler while awaiting transport to a laboratory to be analyzed for dangerous metals and other contaminants.
The crews tested 10 wells Wednesday and Thursday, and Caltrans eventually will release results.
For example, the government on Wednesday posted results from samples taken in July. They produced trace amounts of barium, strontium, arsenic, chromium, molybdenum and several other constituents, but none in concentrations exceeding thresholds for safe drinking water.
Barium the most prominent concern is considered dangerous at 700 micrograms per liter of water, according to a national health advisory. The metal showed up in all 10 wells, but the highest concentration detected was 280 micrograms per liter.
Next on scientists' worry list for the site is strontium, detected at 1,100 micrograms per liter in three wells. The safety threshold is 4,000 micrograms.
One well yielded 51 micrograms per liter of vanadium, barely exceeding the state standard of 50. The metal can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, while too much barium can damage kidneys and other organs.
Some wells showed nitrates, commonly found throughout the valley.
Juhrend said the constituents are natural to rock and soil. Barium was known to be processed at the former FMC chemical plant, which yielded earth piled for the berms.
Sometime next year, experts will suggest how to deal with the soil during freeway construction. Options include capping the berms with concrete or excavating the dirt and hauling it away.
A detailed environmental study, with public input, could be released in a year or so.
The state's Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Regional Water Quality Control Board are involved in assessing risk, and sent representatives Wednesday.
On the Net: www.envirostor.dtsc.ca.gov/public/profile_report.asp? global_id=60001626.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.