News Item: On Friday May 16, a brush fire within the toxic waste piles of Modesto’s 132 Freeway right-of-way spread out of control during a late afternoon wind storm, gutting four homes adjacent to property maintained by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). The vegetation around and on the toxic waste piles caught fire. The preliminary report says the blaze originated with an illegal open pit fire.
Toxic Waste Piles Out Of Compliance Again
Under an agreement with the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), Caltrans is required to maintain the toxic waste piles within the 132 Freeway right of way in a manner that prevents dust from blowing off the piles. The written agreement between the two agencies specifies that Caltrans is to maintain dense brush on the piles in order to keep dust containing toxic elements such as Barium from blowing into the surrounding neighborhood. Caltrans is also supposed to keep trespassers out of the area.
Unfortunately, the fire removed a large percentage of the vegetation from two of the piles, putting Caltrans out of compliance with the DTSC agreement. The neighborhood thus has greater exposure to toxic elements.
The toxic waste mounds have no sprinkler system to water plants on the mounds, so the vegetation dried out and burned fiercely after it caught fire. Without sprinklers to dampen the dirt, the piles will spread dust.
People will question whether Caltrans maintained the toxic waste piles in a manner that was fire safe. The wind caused the fire to spread from the piles to four neighboring homes, indicating inadequate maintenance of a fire break by the state agency. The vegetation was too high and dry for firefighters to keep the fire from spreading during the wind storm.
Waste Pile Disposition Recommendation Due in September
In September 2014, Caltrans will be making a public recommendation as to how the toxic waste piles are to be dealt with when the first phase of 132 Freeway construction begins. Funding for construction has been secured, but the project has been delayed because of citizen protests about a plan that proposed to simply put a concrete cap on the four piles of toxic waste that are within the right of way, keeping the toxic waste in place in perpetuity.
Citizen advocates, including Stanislaus County Supervisor candidate Scott Calkins, have been insisting that a concrete cap would be an unreliable method of assuring public health safety. Mr. Calkins has cited a number of violations of the Cal Trans-DTSC site maintenance agreement.
Cracks may develop in the proposed concrete cap that could cause toxic waste to leach into groundwater. Citizens fear that once Caltrans builds the cap, the integrity of the cap won’t be monitored—just as Caltrans has failed to properly maintain the vegetation on the existing property. Citizen advocates argue that the toxic waste mounds should be removed to a proper toxic waste disposal site so that the community won’t have to worry anymore about the mounds.
Incumbent County Supervisor Terry Withrow has stated that he wants a facility built that is totally safe for the surrounding community. He is awaiting the September report.
Below Grade Preferred
In removing the toxic waste mounds, citizen advocates prefer construction of a below grade 132 freeway within the right of way. An elevated freeway would divide the community and be nosier than a below grade facility within the city limits. The 99 Freeway is below grade in the area intersecting the future 132 Freeway.
Caltrans prefers to build a facility with the least cost, but citizen advocates want the one-time construction project built in a manner that minimizes disruption to the community near the freeway. The 132 Freeway is a regional project. Therefore, the project should be built for the benefit of the entire region without harming the local community.
Community anger over the proposals received so far from Cal Trans and the lack of definitive responses to concerns over the past two years have agitated some of the people monitoring the project. In order for the project to proceed smoothly, decision makers will want to listen closely to the community’s wishes. Some people have expressed a desire to stop a project they perceive will be poorly executed. Once opinions become hardened, they will be difficult to change.
When people feel that their homes and way of life are threatened, they become very territorial. Based on the track record of Caltrans in the maintenance of the existing toxic mounds, the community has less confidence than usual for a freeway project of this kind. Public officials have promised to listen, but haven’t delivered any plans that reflect the wishes of citizens who will be most affected. The upcoming September report will set the tone for the remainder of the 132 Freeway’s construction.