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Toxic site in Manteca neighborhood
Brush fire was on land with arsenic contamination
HOME FIRE1-6-21-13
The Gordon property, besides posing a fire hazard with weeds and dry brush, also has soil contaminated with arsenic. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Manteca has a toxic waste site laden with arsenic in the middle of a neighborhood.

The three acres on South Union Road between Daniels Street and Mission Ridge Drive also is covered with weeds and dry brush creating a fire hazard as well.

The city had been quietly working to try and address weed abatement on the Gordon property without much fanfare. That changed last Friday when a brush fire struck the property. Firefighters have described the site as “tough” to tackle a brush fire on due to its configuration and access points. It sent smoke billowing over the city and forced the fire department to make use of its 100-foot aerial platform engine to effectively stop the fire from spreading.

“They (the fire department) were preparing to go ahead with weed abatement when the fire occurred,” noted City Manager Karen McLaughlin.

The land became contaminated when at one point the property owners were bringing chemicals onto the site and repackaging them into smaller containers for resale.

McLaughlin said tests have shown the arsenic hasn’t leeched down to the water table. The arsenic is not far from the surface.

That means when weed abatement starts later this month, the crews hired won’t be able to disc the weeds under as is done elsewhere in Manteca. Instead, they will have to use weed whackers to get the dry vegetation as short as possible since turning over the soil could potentially kick up dust laden with arsenic.

A 20- to 30-foot defense zone will be cleared around the home that previously burned. In addition, a perimeter defense line will also be cleared as a protective buffer for surrounding homes.

“We’ve been told the contamination is fairly close to the surface but we don’t know how close,” McLaughlin said.

The city has been made out to be the bad guy by some for not addressing a complete site clean-up.

What actually has happened is the property — which is still privately owned — has toxic-related liens filed against it by the state. But the state, instead of taking the lead in pursuing a clean-up for the property has put the ball in the city’s court.

“They basically (the state) have said that it is our problem if we want it cleaned up,” McLaughlin said.

That’s where the rub comes in. Preliminary estimates have put the clean up cost in excess of $200,000. And since you can never be sure of the extent of the contamination until you start moving dirt, one council member has noted the clean-up cost could soar to $500,000.

That’s because the soil that is contaminated — regardless of how far down it goes — would have to be removed in such a manner as not to kick up dust and then shipped in special containers to a toxic waste dumpsite in Nevada.

And should Manteca go ahead and incur legal expenses for a clean-up as well as have the actual clean-up performed, the only way it could recoup the money would be to place a lien against the property which would be behind those placed by the state. There would be a good chance the city would receive very little of the money — if any —should they force a clean-up.

As long as the soil isn’t disturbed the arsenic doesn’t pose an immediate health problem.

McLaughlin said private water wells for homes on nearby Corwin Drive and Seuss Court have been tested. They show no signs of being contaminated by arsenic.

The cause of last week’s brush fire is under investigation.