Oakdale residents say sludge plan stinks

Stinky sludge may be good for orchards but surely will offend neighbors, say hundreds of Oakdale people willing to stand up to their city's largest employer.

ConAgra Foods, which puts 1,200 people to work during packing season, needs to dredge a waste-water pond and get rid of 60,000 tons of muck, mostly water with tomato and bean residue, accumulating for at least 20 years.

Its plan is similar to a decades-old practice of pouring mostly clean rinse water from the plant on rancher John Brichetto's nearby fields and orchards, except that Brichetto's men would use tractors to work sludge into the soil.

But people familiar with odors from ConAgra's sewer pond south of town predict that the stirred-up muck will stink to high heaven despite the company's assurances that it will work to contain the smells. They say the notion to spread it on Brichetto's 13 parcels near town, some within a stone's throw of dense neighborhoods, reeks.

"I invite you all to eat your lunch" at ConAgra's pond, grower Hendrik Bomer wrote in a letter to Stanislaus County environmental resources officials. County leaders are scheduled Dec. 8 to consider the company's request for a sludge-spreading permit.

Bomer, a believer in soil amendments and farming rights for the four decades he's farmed near Oakdale, says he's a friend of Brichetto. But dumping muck near people's noses could "light up the town," he said.

Proposed rules would keep sludge at least 300 feet from homes. ConAgra would concentrate dredging into an initial three-week period, but afterward would be allowed intermittent spreading year-round, according to a county report.

Others predict that the muck would draw rats, flies and mosquitoes or maybe harm private wells. Still others are wary of the estimated 2,400 trips needed by trucks to scrape the pond's bottom and carry sludge away in the initial period.

Petitions against the permit have been signed by the likes of former Mayor Pat Kuhn and former Public Works Director Mike Pettinger, both of whom live in neighborhoods near proposed application sites. They and 156 other signers "are in united and stern opposition," the petition reads, noting more than 300 houses, three churches, a school and a social hall sit not far from one site just west of town.

Sure, the permit would benefit ConAgra and Brichetto, the petition reads -- but it is not helpful to everyone else.

"The material could very well cause an overwhelming stench and an environment for flies, mosquitoes and other related pests," wrote Dan and Janet Medina in another letter. They also live near Oakdale's west end.

State Department of Fish and Game officials are worried that the sludge might affect water quality in the nearby Stanislaus River, and could harm wildlife such as fish and the threatened Swainson's hawk. State air pollution control officials say so many trucks could cause a breathing risk.

Heidi Jorgenson, principal of a Seventh-day Adventist grade school, worries that an "unpleasant aroma" and flies could ruin her pupils' lunch, recess and PE classes.

Industry experts are divided.

Martin Reyes, chairman of the Stanislaus County Food Processing Byproducts Reuse Committee, years ago helped develop a byproducts recycling program considered a good example to other California communities, he said. ConAgra's sludge plan "goes beyond" traditional practice, he said, and "could bring negative attention to what is otherwise a successful model."

"It would be devastating to have that approval put in jeopardy," Reyes said in a letter.

But the California League of Food Processors says ConAgra's pond mud is "not toxic or hazardous materials. Returning those materials to the land will constitute a beneficial reuse."

Rob Neenan, the league's vice president, noted that ConAgra would be prevented from overloading any single site and would spread sludge in "relatively thin layers ... tilling it into the soil right after it has dried," or within three days. The plan poses "no risk to water, air, land or human health," Neenan said.

City Hall supports the permit, Deputy Public Works Director David Myers said in a letter. However, he acknowledged odor complaints about ConAgra's pond.

Mike Adian, who lives near a proposed application site north of the river, suggested a trial run before leaders consider the permit.

"Why not set up a test area where the public can view and smell the material to be spread?" Adian said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.