After years of fretting, a toxic nightmare in the Riverdale Park neighborhood could be coming true.
The tract's drinking water might be contaminated, according to a recent violation issued to the nearby Bonzi Sanitation Landfill.
State water officials over the years have ordered Bonzi to clean a tainted underground plume slowly moving toward the Tuolumne River, with the neighborhood's only well in its path. California Attorney General Jerry Brown escalated the demand with a rare lawsuit against the landfill in July.
A test last week showed low levels of an oily contaminant consistent with landfill leakage. The concentration is far less than the state's danger level, but water officials are alarmed because it's the first time the cancer-causing agent has showed up in the well, which delivers water to about 300 people in 200 homes southwest of Modesto.
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"It's coming from the dump," said Bill Lawson, 72, who has lived across the street from the well for 20 years. Most neighbors, knowing the landfill's trouble with water regulations, buy and drink bottled water, Lawson and others said Wednesday.
A spokesman for Bonzi, which is scheduled to close in early 2011, could not be reached Wednesday.
The late Rudy Bonzi started the 128-acre landfill in 1967 without a bottom liner or means of collecting liquids draining from the site. State officials have demanded that the landfill clean tainted groundwater since the mid-1980s, about the time the landfill closed to the public, though garbage trucks continue dumping loads there.
A previous lawsuit ended with Bonzi agreeing in 2005 to pay $500,000 in fines, plus $8.6 million spread out in scheduled payments to cover closing costs by 2011. A year later, the landfill had paid $100,000 in fines and $4 million in closing costs, but has not paid more since and is more than $2 million behind.
"They keep amassing violations, one after another," said Cris Carri- gan, senior staff counsel with the state Water Resources Control Board. The agency issued at least four notices listing numerous violations since Brown's July lawsuit.
Bonzi may owe an additional $1.4 million in fines for failing to live up to the 2005 judgment, Carrigan said.
The landfill's groundwater treatment system failed Sept. 30 and did not work for several days, according to a Water Quality Control Board document. On Oct. 5, Bonzi notified the board, which sampled Riverdale's well the next day.
Results showed trace amounts of 1,1-Dichloro- ethane, commonly used to dissolve paint and grease.
"Though at a low level and considered safe, it's disturbing that this contamination has never been detected in the well before," Carrigan said. His agency noted the results Oct. 28 while issuing other violations alleging that the landfill accepts nonpermitted waste and places other waste in nonpermitted areas.
Earlier groundwater tests near the landfill turned up components of gasoline and metals such as barium, chromium, vanadium, manganese, nickel and zinc.
Modesto water pipe unused
Expecting the worst, officials years ago extended a pipe from Modesto's water system to the neighborhood, but the pipe remains idle. The Riverdale Park Tract Community Services District, which runs the neighborhood well, could switch to the city source at any time, but likely would be forced to double $25-per-month water rates, the district's Kelly Murphy said.
"That would be pretty devastating for us," Murphy said. "There are a lot of low-income people out here. My job is to try to keep water costs low."
Resident Dennis Cole, 59, said he didn't trust the well even before the recent test results. He tried boiling tap water and passing it through a cheesecloth strainer, he said, but can't stomach the taste even when he makes Kool-Aid.
"It tastes oily," Cole said.
Lawson said he buys cases of water when it goes on sale.
"I'll tell you how bad it got," Lawson said. "Last year, I watered my tomato plants and they died. How much worse can you get?"
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.