Atop a hill on the east side of Oakdale stands a big water tank overlooking the Stanislaus River.
OK, so the tank itself doesn’t look at anything. Tanks can’t see.
But if you stand next to it, you can, with a view of the river to the north and much of the city to the west and south. The city needed to build a catch basin downhill from the tank, giving water a place to go if officials ever need to drain the system for cleaning or any other reason. It cannot simply go into the river.
So an engineering firm designed a flume of concrete and river rock leading to a catch basin down the hillside and next to a home on River Bluff Drive. When excavation began on the basin itself, it became apparent the land once had been use as a dump. The crew hauled away yards of debris-bearing soil and left behind even more. Broken glass, brick, ceramic pipe and other stuff is still visible. That there were few, if any, plastics uncovered suggests the dump is very old.
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The rain that hit the area hard couple of weeks ago, combined with the trash still in the ground, created two sinkholes. A third formed sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning. A hole about 12 to 16 inches in diameter unveiled wormholes several feet long beneath the surface. Children played in the basin, despite the dangers.
City officials have known for years the area once had a dump, but ...
“We thought it was on the other side” of the hill, east of the tank, said Thom Clark, Oakdale’s public works director. “We didn’t have anything that was mapped out.”
The fact is, virtually every city or town anywhere has a dump – and in most cases several – that was abandoned, paved over or otherwise forgotten.
As the towns formed in the 1880s and grew, people dumped their trash somewhere, and often on bluffs or other high ground, Clark said.
“Escalon had a dump along the (Stanislaus) river,” he said. “Hughson had one that was exposed when it started eroding.”
“Every community had its little home in the ground,” said Mark Oldfield, spokesman for the state agency CalRecycle, which, he said, maintains an extensive database but one that doesn’t include every “old legacy facility.”
“They’re like old mines,” he said. Everyone knows they’re there, but they basically are forgotten until there’s a cave-in.
Records in some cases might not exist or are inaccurate. CalRecycle monitors 10 closed or inactive landfills in Stanislaus County, including the Geer Road Landfill that closed in 1990 and became the target of lawsuits over groundwater and other issues over the years. It also monitors three in Modesto, two near Patterson, and one each in Hughson, Turlock, Patterson and Oakdale for groundwater contamination and methane gas issues. The Oakdale site is near the airport southeast of town.
As for other dumps in the county, like the one rediscovered recently in Oakdale, Stanislaus County Environmental Resources Director Jami Aggers said information on them might exist in the agency’s archives. Until about two decades ago, people with certain amounts of land could obtain permits from the county to have dumps on private property. But they’ve never been mapped collectively.
Which means developers or contractors might periodically stumble across these little surprises when they excavate. In many cities, virtually everyone in city government has been hired since landfills became countywide concerns. Officials lack both the institutional memory and the documentation to guide them.
“We don’t know where they all are in Turlock,” said Garner Reynolds, the city’s regulatory affairs manager. “(Workers) found one at the wastewater treatment plant. When we find them, we clean them up.”
What they need is help from people who have lived in towns their entire lives, who remember where these places were and can point them out to officials in those cities.
“I’d like to know what’s out there,” Reynolds said. “We want full disclosure.”
Jack Canario, whose home is next to the new catch basin/old dump in Oakdale, said the disclosure statement he received when he bought the home 25 years ago indicated a dump existed nearby.
“This neighborhood is (partly) built on fill,” he said. He said he collected bricks from the land next to his place and used them to landscape over the years. But he didn’t realize the depth of the dump until the crew dug the catch basin and the sinkholes appeared.
Friday, the crew returned with a backhoe to fill and compact them. The ground will be hydroseeded to grow grass on the hillside and prevent future erosion. In a few months, the repository’s remnants will be out of sight and mind.
Rest assured, it won’t be the last old dump that rises again.