Riverdale Park residents and nearby businesses polluted their own ground-water, Bonzi Sanitation Landfill contends in a $20 million countersuit against state government.
The landfill claims water regulators fraudulently hid tests shifting responsibility for tainted water to extort a $9 million settlement in 2005.
State water officials have ordered Bonzi to clean up the water for more than 20 years, and California Attorney General Jerry Brown took the unusual step of suing Bonzi on July 24. The state is seeking millions of dollars needed to close the landfill by early 2011.
But Bonzi contends it's not at fault for contaminated well water in Riverdale in the countersuit, which was filed Oct. 20. The landfill claims Ace Auto Wreckers, Modesto Disposal Co., nearby farmers and unnamed people among 300 living in Riverdale fouled the water. Ace is Bonzi's next-door neighbor on West Hatch Road and the former transfer station is across the street.
Ace owner Ed Garcia said, "It looks like they're trying to rub it off on other people. They know better. They know it's not me."
A garbage-hauling contract held by Waste Management Inc. and its predecessor, Modesto Disposal, with the city expired three years ago, and the company did not renew with another city in Stanislaus County this year.
"It's really a sad story," Newport Beach attorney Thomas O'Keefe, who is representing the landfill, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "(Bonzi family members) were scapegoated for problems that weren't theirs. It's just unfair."
Bullying Steven Bonzi into signing the 2005 deal by threatening him with "personal criminal responsibility" amounts to "criminal extortion ... and blackmail," O'Keefe wrote. The state also violated Bonzi's civil rights to due process and equal protection, the countersuit says.
The Bee reported Thursday that a polluted groundwater plume may have reached Riverdale's sole well, which delivers tap water to about 200 homes, according to results from tests taken Oct. 6. But Bonzi claims that the neighborhood well "did contain various contaminates" in previous tests.
A press release announcing the state's lawsuit against Bonzi embarrassed the company with "many false and disparaging statements which are defamatory," O'Keefe wrote. For example, state officials said the Riverdale water was clean but knew it wasn't. Also, government did not require that dumps install bottom liners or liquid runoff collection systems when the late Rudy Bonzi started the landfill 42 years ago, the countersuit says.
Bonzi and his wife, Mary, who has also died, "derived considerable pride" from "providing a valuable social service to the community," O'Keefe wrote.
"All of these state demands forced them to sell off properties in a horrible market and decimated what was once a substantial personal fortune to the point where they were totally impoverished," O'Keefe said Thursday.
More than $1M in fines
The Bonzis and their heirs paid more than $1 million in fines and lost more than $5 million selling properties to satisfy the 2005 judgment, the lawsuit says. They also set aside more than $4 million to monitor and clean groundwater and were forced to hire geotechnical experts and construct testing wells, the documents says.
The lawsuit seeks the return of those sums plus $10 million in punitive and exemplary damages. Bonzi also wants a court ruling on "comparative fault" for the tainted groundwater.
California Deputy Attorney General Jan Zabriskie, who wrote the state's July lawsuit against Bonzi, said of the countersuit, "It's unfortunate to see them take that position."
The auto wrecker's private well is regularly monitored. "So far, it's good; that's all they tell me," Garcia said.
But another well in the plume's path toward the Tuolumne River has been contaminated for at least a dozen years, said Terry Vernon, quartermaster of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3199.
The Bonzi family provided carbon filters for the VFW's well for years, Vernon said, until new management took over about the same time as arsonists torched the VFW hall, in August 2007. Donations and kind-hearted contractors allowed reconstruction, leading to a grand opening scheduled for Nov. 21.
"Everything is good except our water situation," Vernon said, adding that the landfill has refused to replace filters for two years. "We're stuck with a well that can't function."
Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, who represents that area, is known as a conservative champion of business who chafes at onerous government regulation. But Bonzi gets no sympathy from him, DeMartini said Thursday.
"If you're playing by the rules and you're harassed by government, that's one thing," DeMartini said. "When you're skirting the law and contaminating soil and water, I'm not going to be there defending you."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.