When the familiar stench wafts over this country club enclave, some neighbors retreat inside, close windows to their homes, fetch the Lysol or Febreze, hunker down and do a slow burn.
“We’re like prisoners in our homes,” said Randy Butler. “You don’t know if you can have friends over for a backyard barbecue. You’re playing Russian roulette.”
“It’s so dank and thick, it burns your eyes,” agreed Gorden Fluker.
Neighbors commiserate on social media and circulate fliers encouraging complaints to air district officials, who put pressure on water control enforcers, who are coming down on Escalon for not corralling the stomach-churning smell.
Sewer ponds just across the Stanislaus River, filled with wastewater from an economic powerhouse. Prevailing winds often blow southeast, carrying noxious odors to the upper-crust hamlet.
Last week, a state agency enforcing sewage rules ordered City Hall to figure out what’s going wrong and fix it. The official notice mentioned “putrid odors” that “must be controlled immediately.”
A related inspection found that sewage had seeped into the Stanislaus River from a rodent hole in a berm. In a report to three government agencies, the city estimated the contamination at less than 500 gallons.
“A failure of the berms would be a catastrophic (event),” reads the Sept. 24 “Notice of Violation” from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Escalon could face fines, the document says.
Interim City Manager Tammy Alcantor said Escalon will comply with the demands of the agency, also known as the California Water Boards. She wasn’t ready to say whether the odor problem – worse this year than in the past decade, neighbors say – is the city’s fault or that of local canneries.
No one disputes that the stink comes from ponds that process waste from the city’s largest employer, Escalon Premier Brands, as well as Eckert Cold Storage. The first processes tomatoes and is a subsidiary of ketchup giant H.J. Heinz Co., while Eckert cooks and freezes bell peppers. The companies did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.
Both are important employers, said Pat Brown, president of the Escalon Chamber of Commerce.
“We can tell when it’s regular tomato sauce day and when it’s wonderful-smelling pizza sauce day,” Brown said of Heinz aromas familiar in Escalon. “It’s such a heavenly smell.”
Downwind from the sewage ponds, Del Rio residents tell a much different story. Some said they get migraines; others cut walks short. Naresh Channaveerappa said “hundreds, if not thousands” of complaints have been registered with the air district.
The same sewer ponds have been blamed for vile stenches dating to 1996, prompting enforcement actions warning the city to clean up its act or else.
The most serious came in the summer of 2003, when the water boards ordered Escalon to “cease and desist” emitting odors. The order noted a sharp increase in wastewater with solids sent from the canneries, from 2.4 million pounds per day in 2001 to 3.1 million the next year.
Until recently, plant improvements seemed to help, neighbors said.
The water boards issued one violation at the sewage plant in 2011 and none in 2012, but slapped Escalon with eight in 2013. Summaries indicate that all stemmed from the plant being forced to handle more yucky stuff than it’s capable of. Whether they relate to cannery waste could not be determined, though six of the eight cited “industrial effluent.”
This year, complaints mounted in early August, the latest notice says, and the city denied having problems.
Alcantor said the plant operator, a 10-year employee, quit Sept. 16 and Alcantor hired a firm to fill in while she searches for his replacement.
The next day, the city informed state officials of sewage seeping into the river, which was stopped with “several yards of soil and clay.” Inspectors that day found duckweed and algae growing in ponds – another violation, because they breed flies and mosquitoes – and some berms were saturated because the ponds were overloaded.
The state ordered Escalon to monitor every day how much waste the canneries send to the plant. The city also must hire, by Oct. 31, an expert to evaluate problems and come up with “an odor identification and mitigation plan.”
“(The canneries) are working with us to help correct the situation,” Alcantor said.
Some Del Rio residents own businesses and sympathize with regulatory burdens, but are losing patience.
“You try to give them a pass,” Butler said, “but it comes to a point when you’re done.”