Doubt and relief at soil testing hearing in Modesto

Last Wednesday's open house to explain analyses of contaminated soil got mixed reviews from concerned people living west of downtown Modesto.

Some were grateful that engineers and scientists were available to answer questions on recent testing, which showed little danger from barium-laced dirt piled high nearly 50 years ago if it's left undisturbed.

Some were skeptical that agencies have done enough to prove there is nothing to worry about.

Many said government would have ignored the potential problem if not for demands of anxious neighbors.

"They were going full steam ahead and only stood up now because we were pushing them to do it," said Jim Brughelli, who has lived in the area for six decades.

He remembers the former FMC plant that processed ore and chemicals in the 1950s and early 1960s, belching dark clouds and dumping liquid waste in unlined ponds that were scraped to make way for Highway 99.

"A nasty, scary place," Brughelli said, "like something out of a science-fiction movie."

Pond-bottom dirt was piled in three linear berms south of Kansas Avenue to someday form the base of an elevated freeway segment. That someday is fast approaching, hope transportation officials who are eager for a smooth connection from Highway 99 to Highway 132 and the Bay Area.

Renewed interest in the expressway sparked concern about barium in the piles and whether it might have seeped into groundwater. The California Department of Transportation commissioned studies in March and declared in July that there isn't much to get worked up about.

"The risk hazards are very, very low," said Kimiko Klein, a toxicologist with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. That includes exposure to groundwater and to dust stirred by road crews, she said.

More than 500 samples have been scrutinized over the years, the latest for 12 minerals and 19 heavy metals, including barium, which can harm the kidneys. But none showed dangerous levels, even if someone were exposed daily for many years, Klein said.

Groundwater samples will continue to be tested every other month instead of every three months, "just to confirm what we believe," said Steve Becker of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversaw Caltrans' sampling and performed separate tests.

An updated analysis should be revealed in January, and experts next summer will suggest how to deal with the soil during freeway construction. Options include capping the berms with concrete or excavating the dirt and hauling it away.

An environmental study, with public input, could be ready to approve in fall 2013, according to a schedule.

Meanwhile, neighbors said they appreciate information after five months of waiting, although some would have preferred a formal presentation to Wednesday's drop-in-and-chat format.

"I want to make sure they're following the rules," said Denise Crist, one of several who found information presented on poster boards hard to digest.

Carol Robson said, "There is more transparency -- because (months ago) we said, 'Wait a minute; what's going on here?' "

"It's an issue of trust," said Manuel Valdez. "Once they start working and (dust) starts flying around, we have to trust Caltrans. Can we?"