Bruce Frohman on Caltrans' Failure to Maintain Modesto Toxic Waste Site

Toxic Dirt? Yes.

Several months ago, former Modesto City Councilman Bruce Frohman became concerned about toxic waste piles in west Modesto. Frohman’s persistent questioning of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and Caltrans revealed Caltrans has failed to properly maintain the site. Here is Bruce Frohman’s insider report.

A toxic waste site exists within the right of way of the future State Route 132 freeway. The site is located just south of Kansas Avenue, in three separate piles between Emerald Avenue on the west and an area immediately adjacent to the east side of freeway 99.

The toxic waste site was created in the 1960’s when freeway 99 was built. Soil was moved from the bottom of FMC Corporation’s settling ponds and deposited within the right of way to form the base for a future elevated 132 freeway.

The three separate piles hold a total of approximately 120,000 cubic yards of toxic soil, containing Barium and Strontium Sulfate ores, and other minerals. The soil has been in that location, exposed to the weather, for about 50 years.

Upon learning in December 2011 of the existence of the toxic soil piles, this writer started a campaign to start prompt remediation of the site to protect public health.

Previously, on December 17, 2009, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) had notified Caltrans via letter that the toxic soil site would not pose a hazard to the public IF the site were maintained in a specifically prescribed manner. Based on that letter, Caltrans officials have offered public assurances that the site is totally safe on several different occasions.

This writer’s multiple conversations with employees of the DTSC seemed to contradict the assurances of Caltrans officials. DTSC comments such as, “The soil is not safe to move” and, “I worry about children playing in the soil, “created doubts as to whether the site has been sufficiently supervised.

On February 15, 2012, the Stanislaus Council of Governments (STANCOG) reached an agreement with Caltrans and the DTSC to do a study to determine whether any environmental damage has been done and what clean-up will be needed. Although $250,000 will be needed to fund the study, as of this writing in March 2012, the funding source for implementation of the study has not been secured. Mr. Carlos Yamzon of STANCOG stated in an email that funding will be secured to do the study.

On March 1, 2012, DTSC sent Caltrans a letter that provided explicit instructions to Cal Trans on how to maintain and monitor the 132 freeway toxic waste site. The letter was the result of an onsite physical inspection conducted in February 2012 by the DTSC. The inspection found deficiencies in the supervision of the site by Cal Trans.

A DTSC employee told this writer that the site might not be safe because Caltrans had failed to maintain the standards for site supervision as outlined in the previous letter of December 17, 2009. Specifically, Caltrans failed to maintain fences around the site to keep out unauthorized personnel. A mattress used by a homeless person was found within the area that was supposed to have been fenced off. To keep dust from blowing off the site, a cover of vegetation was to have been maintained. DTSC found the ground cover inadequate. Trails were found crossing the toxic waste site. Apparently, some digging in the dirt by trespassers also took place.

Nearby neighborhood eyewitnesses have reported that a homeless person has been living on the site and that erosion rivulets exist in the dirt piles. The rivulets are especially troubling as it could be an indicator of off-site runoff of toxic material. There is also concern of groundwater contamination.

Now that the public is watching, the community should expect that the toxic waste site will receive the necessary attention from Caltrans to make sure it is safe. The study commissioned by STANCOG is expected to be completed by March 2013. Hopefully, shortly after that date, action will be taken to either cap the site in concrete or remove the toxic soil and take any other measures to do a thorough clean up.

Conflicting reports exist regarding whether the toxic soil can be removed to a toxic waste dump site. Caltrans and DTSC have said to this writer that the soil should not be moved.

A concrete cap to permanently seal the soil would cost an estimated $2 million. Another report circulating is that all of the soil can be removed for about $6 million. It is not clear whether the public will be provided with an option when the toxic waste site report is released.

The community is at least a year away from seeing the problem of the toxic waste site resolved. The first steps have been taken in a process which may take years to complete.


Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
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  1. They need to just cap the sites right away. Transporting the toxins may be the worst of the ways to deal with the toxins. If it looked like a dirt pile then many children for decades have been playing in the toxic dirt or riding bikes and walking over them. They don’t need to wait another year they need to do this right away using the emergency funds available.

    The wind more than likely carried the toxic sand over the whole neighborhoods.

    Laziness,inept people in charge, they were only thinking about the paycheck at the 9 to5 union job with fat pensions.

    How many people have gotten sick because of this mismanagement?

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