Barium plan, unveiled early in a gaffe, is unpopular with Modesto residents

gstapley@modbee.comJune 28, 2014 

A government-sponsored newsletter updating people on plans for a new freeway west of Modesto contains bad information on the very sensitive subject of barium contamination.

For years, local and state transportation officials have not revealed whether crews might truck away three hills of soil laced with the dangerous heavy metal, as many neighbors hope, or simply cap them with concrete and build the new Highway 132 bypass on top. Officials routinely have said an option will not be selected until after a formal plan is released in January with key environmental studies.

But the four-page newsletter that arrived in mailboxes of 2,200 neighbors a few days ago talks about capping “as described in a Remedial Action Plan,” a document kept strictly secret.

The truth is that the California Department of Transportation recommends “encapsulation,” but the decision will be made by another state agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control. And that won’t happen until after the plan is shared publicly and neighbors are given a chance to add their thoughts.

Caltrans spokeswoman Chantel Miller acknowledged that the newsletter is “misleading” and said her agency erred in proofreading it. The mailer was prepared by public relations consultant Judith Buethe and commissioned by the Stanislaus Council of Governments, a local planning agency.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t catch the way it was worded,” Miller said Thursday.

Debra “Sam” Haack, Caltrans’ Highway 132 project manager, confirmed that her agency indeed prefers capping, a much less expensive effort. But people weren’t supposed to find that out until January.

The technical term for sealing soil is “entombment,” a word evoking the mood of some neighbors who are anxious about noise, traffic, dust, air pollution and their health. Construction on the project, expected to cost up to $170 million, is expected to begin in 2016 and take about two years, although a final phase could wait a decade.

“The only way to clean it up is to totally remove that soil,” said Terhesa Gamboa.

Scott Calkins, who fears contaminants could foul his residential well, agreed. He has been critical of agencies’ response to his many requests for information over the years.

“It makes you wonder if they have something they’re not releasing or just planning for what they’ve wanted to happen all along,” said Calkins, who lost a race for county supervisor to Terry Withrow earlier this month.

Five decades in the making

The three large berms, amounting to about 160,000 cubic yards, were scooped some five decades ago from nearby ponds at the former FMC chemical plant, which processed barium. A raised freeway stretch had been envisioned even earlier, and more soil was needed on land acquired by the government, paralleling Kansas Avenue to the south.

State scientists repeatedly have said that concentrations of barium, strontium and lead are too low for people to worry about organ damage or cancer.

Capping the berms would prevent dust kicking up during construction and would keep rain from carrying heavy metals as it seeps into groundwater, Haack said.

Several neighbors are not convinced, noting that no preventive barrier was put under the earth before it was piled up.

Haack said cost estimates for capping and removal are outlined in the Remedial Action Plan, which won’t become public until next year, but the difference is significant. StanCOG Executive Director Carlos Yamzon said removal would be “cost prohibitive,” suggesting that option could kill the project.

Supporters say a four-lane expressway with no stops, dipping south to connect with Highway 132, or Maze Boulevard, near Dakota Avenue, would provide a smoother shot from Highway 99 toward the Bay Area and help to put Modesto on the map. Some businesspeople, particularly those in Modesto’s Beard Industrial District, look forward to related improvements that would take trucks off busy Ninth Street in favor of beefed-up Fifth and Sixth streets, which front Highway 99.

Other components include an interchange where Carpenter Road would meet the bypass, a potential boon to merchants in that area. Others near Highway 99’s interchange with Kansas could expect disruptions – one of two design options would remove existing ramps on the west side of Highway 99 in favor of a new configuration, which could hurt hotels, restaurants and other nearby businesses such as Crystal Creamery. Both options show a new crossing over the freeway tying into Needham Street for downtown access.

Officials say they will hold a public meeting to update neighbors later this year, before the January release of environmental studies and the barium plan.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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