Despite assurances, Hughson mobile home owners have water worries

Dozens of people living next to the defunct Geer Road Landfill, it would seem, have every reason to fear the well water pumped to their faucets:

• Many tons of garbage were buried without a protective bottom liner from 1971 until the dump closed in 1990.

• That garbage polluted groundwater beneath the dump. Its owners, Stanislaus County and Modesto, have spent more than $6.5 million in 13 years trying to clean the water.

• Underground aquifers are connected and poisoned water can move across property lines. That's why state attorneys are suing the owners of Bonzi Sanitation Landfill south of Modesto, another unlined former dump whose toxic plume may threaten the Riverdale Park neighborhood's nearby well.

• Fearing a massive judgment by a jury near the end of a 2003 trial, the county agreed to pay $1.9 million to buy out a family living just north of the Geer Road Landfill who claimed it had contaminated their well. The county then destroyed the home and well.

• The county in 1988 bought out a family living southeast of the Geer Road dump who had sued, and demolished their home and well.

• Owners of Pinewood Meadows Mobile Home Park, across the street from the landfill, have repeatedly refused to allow groundwater testing requested by state water officials, who want to make sure the dump's toxic plume isn't migrating.

• Mobile home owners are tired of receiving notices warning them that their tap water, which sometimes comes out in milky drips, is dangerous.

With all of those clues, who could blame park residents for fretting?

"Everyone worries about the water," said Linda Campbell, who boils water twice as long as instructed, then passes it through a filter before using it.

Phyllis Souza said, "I won't even let my dog drink this water."

She buys about $25 of bottled water each month on top of about $10 for metered well water. "It's criminal to have to pay for water that's not safe to drink," she said.

But Pinewood and county representatives say the water, with few exceptions not related to the landfill, is absolutely safe.

All of the bullet points above are true, they acknowledge. But they insist that science doesn't lie, and their science says the slowly moving underground plume is heading away from the park.

Even if it wasn't, tests show that the county's cleanup efforts under the landfill are working, they say.

Pinewood's water "doesn't have anything that's going to cause cancer," said Greg Fletcher, the park's water consultant. Its out-of-town owners, twice sued by residents trying to force improvements, considered "seeking relief" against the county but ultimately agreed with its reassuring science, Fletcher said.

The county's cleanup program features 34 monitoring wells scattered throughout the former dump, 22 of which are about 80 feet down and 12 more at about 200 feet. Consultants pump bad water and treat it with carbon filters and also collect and burn methane produced by decomposing refuse; such gases pollute groundwater.

Determining water flow

Regular water testing helps experts determine groundwater flow and shows that the plume isn't spreading and that the mobile home park and nearby Tuolumne River aren't in danger, said Sonya Harrigfeld, county director of environmental resources.

Also, Pinewood is required to hire testers who pull samples from its wells and from eight homes throughout the park. They consistently show clean water, except for interruptions related to failures of the park's old piping system, Harrigfeld said.

"I'm comfortable the water's good" under Pinewood Meadows, Harrigfeld said. "There would be indicators in the testing if it wasn't."

Will Streeter, who has lived for 30 years between the dump and the river, said he's mollified by consistent tests of his well. But he drinks bottled water provided by the county, just in case.

Fletcher's crews are replacing part of the mobile home park's aging metal pipes, which allow interior buildup of naturally occurring gunk that hampers water pressure, he said. About one-third of the park should go online in the next couple of weeks, he said, but the rest will wait for park owners to come up with more money.

As part of the county's cleanup plan, state water officials years ago requested additional tests specifically to verify that the dump's plume isn't moving east. The analyses would examine constituents different from those in standard testing.

But the additional tests require access to Pinewood, whose owners refuse. They cooperated years ago but lost confidence when test results from the government's laboratories produced inaccurate results, Fletcher said. That set in motion inconvenient boil-water notices, he said.

"It became a real burden upon the management of the park," he said.

The state's order doesn't specify that the park must permit entry to the county's consultants. So that testing simply isn't done, despite more than a year of persistent prodding by park resident Rosemary Sofes.

Wendy Wyels, of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Friday that her agency continues to evaluate options to force compliance.

Some Pinewood residents won a $925,000 settlement against Pinewood's former owner in 1996 after they sued, claiming poor maintenance. They got an additional $1.6 million payment four years after bringing a second lawsuit with similar claims. But splitting the money with lawyers and dozens of neighbors left too little for many to move, they said.

Since the recession, the park has become pocked with empty homes, many ransacked and open to the elements.

Neighbors say Pinewood's population, once 500 strong, is about half that. Property manager Greg Evans said he's trucked away about 40 derelict trailers, though many more remain.

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