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Jardine: Plan to spread pond sludge in orchards raises stink

OAKDALE — Here in the valley, agriculture is a way of life. It's part of our fabric.

You don't have to own a dairy to smell one, and your kids love milk.

You don't have to own an orchard to enjoy almonds, peaches, walnuts or anything else that grows on trees.

Every spring, we wait for the roadside produce stands and farmers markets to reopen. Even the most citified folks among us must admit that ag plays a huge role not only in the county's economy, but also in their daily lives.

Yet, whenever another chunk of the world's most fertile land is transformed into a housing tract, the new residents invariably complain about the dust and smell from the neighboring farms that were here first and whose owners, in many cases, once owned the land where those homes now stand.

That is what makes a plan to spread cannery byproducts in orchards around Oakdale so interesting. Homes bordering these orchards have been there for more than a decade and, in some cases, two. The owners learned to live with the periodic dust and signed a right-to-farm understanding when they bought their places.

Now agriculture wants to change the ground rules, essentially putting the residents on the defensive instead of the other way around.

ConAgra Foods is Oakdale's largest seasonal employer, with 1,000 people at the peak of the canning season and 300 year-round. It needs to dredge its three cannery water runoff ponds along Greger Road at the south end of Oakdale.

For at least 15 to 20 years and maybe longer, tomato residue and other sediments have been piling up on the bottom of the pond. No one seems to know when the last clean-out took place (if ever). ConAgra acquired the cannery in 1991, when it bought Beatrice Foods.

This much is certain: The ponds are filling with sediment, leaving less room for the waste water. ConAgra needs to dredge the muck to free up more space.

But what do to with the sludge? We're not talking about a few yards here and there. Try an estimated 60,000 tons, or roughly 2,400 truckloads.

There are two options. They can haul it out to the county's Fink Road Landfill on the West Side, using up space Stanislaus County Environmental Resources wants to reserve for nonrecyclable materials.

Or they recycle it because the pond sludge contains nutrients. ConAgra has an agreement with Oakdale rancher John Brichetto to dump the stuff on his orchards — 13 parcels, all around Oakdale. He would spread the sludge throughout his orchards and disk it into the soil within 72 hours. The sludge couldn't be dumped within 300 feet of homes, under the terms of the permit ConAgra is seeking.

Residents fear the stuff will stink for several weeks, even after it is disked into the soil. If the plan is approved as is, it would take about five weeks of intensive dredging to complete the project, ConAgra spokesman Bob Kula said. After that, the company would dredge the pond every other year or so.

Kula said the process will leave little or no odor, based on trial assessments.

"The results have been very good," he said. "We want to do what's best for everybody. (Smell) should not be a significant issue, if an issue at all."

But any smell would blow into many Oakdale neighborhoods. The majority of Brichetto's parcels are west, northwest or north of town. About 95 percent of the time, the wind blows in from one of those directions.

More than 70 people packed the Oakdale library branch's small conference room Tuesday night to hear the county's presentation.

Vicki Jones, a senior resource management specialist for the county, promised she will review all of the comments received about the plan before sending it on to the Board of Supervisors for a vote, likely in September.

A few spoke in support of the plan. A strong majority — ranging from homeowners to farmers to business professionals — railed against it or want a decision delayed until more testing is done to ensure the sludge is safe and stink-free.

They warned about increased traffic from the trucks hauling the stuff to the various sites.

They worry it might contaminate the groundwater. They believe it will attract mosquitoes, flies and rats. They worry that the smell will hurt the resale value of their homes.

No matter how residents view it or smell it, though, this is one of those rare cases in which agriculture could encroach on neighborhoods and not the other way around.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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