Stanislaus County leaders unanimously agreed Tuesday to allow spreading of cannery sludge in orchards around Oakdale.
ConAgra Foods, the city's largest employer, overcame neighbors' ardent protests, convincing county supervisors that recycling waste-water pond muck accumulating for 20 years won't stink or draw rats and flies.
And if it does, the county can order more controls or revoke a permit, officials said.
Nearly 300 neighbors signed petitions opposing the plan, but few showed up at Tuesday's two-hour hearing. The day after a Dec. 1 Bee story, ConAgra notified the county it would not get rid of sludge on three parcels nearest to dense neighborhoods on the city's west end, although 10 others remain in the plan.
"I commend ConAgra for making the change," said Oakdale Mayor Farrell Jackson. He said he spoke as a private individual and had stayed entirely out of the debate until the plant removed from consideration those three parcels.
"That does it for me," Jackson said. "They made that compromise, and I'm fine with it."
Others remained skeptical. ConAgra's application lists three other parcels near Jackson's neighborhood, plus seven north and south of Oakdale.
Vern Fabry, an Oakdale code enforcement officer living at the city's west end, noted public mockery of a former sugar beet plant in Manteca and the former Modesto Tallow Co. in west Modesto, both of which reeked.
Others, including Herb Moran, noted vague definitions for what constitutes a nuisance that might prompt county environmental resources staff to take action.
Martin Reyes, chairman of the Stanislaus County Food Processing Byproducts Reuse Committee, questioned whether "sludge sitting at the bottom of a pond for 20 years is food-processing byproducts" under his program's definition. ConAgra has not participated in the group's meetings or research, he said.
Several plant officers assured county leaders that their "mud" is mostly harmless soil from tomato fields with little or no odor. Geoff Pyka, ConAgra's environmental engineer, brought some to Tuesday's meeting.
"It's not rotten tomatoes, as you can see," Pyka said.
Tim Hauser, plant operations manager, said, "All we're doing is putting it back where it comes from."
ConAgra employs about 1,200 during peak canning season.
John Brichetto, who has accepted rinse water from ConAgra for years in his fields and orchards, also controls the 10 spreading sites and noted that the plant previously dropped two within the city limit in addition to the three parcels removed last week.
"ConAgra has always been genuine," Brichetto said. "They're not here to contaminate my property. I wouldn't tolerate that."
Sonya Harrigfeld, the county's environmental resources director, said tests show no heavy metals or pesticides in the sludge.
Supervisors, who have been friendly to farming over the years, agreed with the recycling concept. They commended Con-Agra for excluding the three parcels to appease neighbors.
Chairman Jim DeMartini, a grower near Ceres, said he spreads manure at a rate thicker than the plans for the pond muck.
"Once you disc it (into the soil), there's nothing left of it that you can see. And after a few days, (the smell) goes away."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.