Arsenic, other toxins being buried at site for 241 new homes near Hwy. 25 bypass

Decades of contaminated soil at the former Cerrato orchard near Hillcrest and the Hwy. 25 bypass is being buried in 30-foot deep trenches on the site where 241 homes will be built

Bryon Swanson, Hollister’s Development Services director, confirmed to BenitoLink what some in the community have been suspecting for some time, that all of those huge dirt haulers scurrying back and forth across the property at 510 Hillcrest Rd., where new homes will soon be built, were digging those 30-foot deep trenches in order to bury contaminated soil.

The Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) published a public notice in early September, and posted it at the San Benito County Free Library that the remediation would begin Sept. 19. The contaminated soil on the former Cerrato farm, owned by the Cerrato brothers, apparently contains a wide range of toxins, including: arsenic, lead, dieldrin (an insecticide), total petroleum hydrocarbons (a compound in crude oil) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (chemicals released from burning oil).

More than 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil will be excavated and relocated in the trenches, which will be beneath planned private streets. All of the soil will buried on the site. None will be taken off site. The work will take about three months, and is being conducted according to a DTSC removal action work plan dated Nov. 13, 2015.

Swanson said it was his belief that the property has been contaminated since the 1970s through the use of insecticides for the orchard. He believes the arsenic in the soil could be a natural byproduct of apricot seeds.(Swanson was mistaken in his belief that arsenic may be the byproduct of the apricots. Amygdalin, or laetrile, which can be converted to cyanide, is naturally occurring in apricot kernels. DTSC, however, did state that arsenic was found in the soil).

“The contaminated soil has to be buried at least 20 feet below the lowest utility so anyone who may have to go below ground to work on the utilities can ever touch it,” Swanson said. “It will never be buried under any residential properties.”

Jeff Hall, public works inspector for the city, said surveyors determined where the trenches would be dug to make sure they would be located under streets and not under the 241 homes to be built on the site.

“They were only allowed to bury five feet of the toxic material, then they re-surveyed to make sure everything is in the right location,” Hall said. “And then they back-filled it with the native material that wasn’t contaminated. It should be done within a month.”

Hall said that before actual construction can begin, the developer — Benchmark Corporation — has to get the underground utilities in place.

“Then they need to finish the pads first,” he said. “They’re going to do the first part (construction) next to Meridian and build their models. It’s about three months out.”

According to DTSC, an estimated 90,000 properties throughout California are contaminated with some level of toxic substances. DTSC cleans up or oversees approximately 220 hazardous substance release sites at any given time and completes an average of 125 cleanups each year. The Voluntary Cleanup Program and the California Land Reuse and Revitalization Program encourage responsible parties to clean up contaminated properties by offering economic, liability, or efficiency incentives.

DTSC also encourages property owners to investigate and clean up contamination if found, through a combination of low-interest loans. DTSC has classified the Cerrato site as a voluntary cleanup project.

Contaminated land is defined as land that presents a hazard in the form of material that has the potential for harm. Assessment of the risk of harm is based on the likelihood, frequency and seriousness of adverse consequences, which might include threats to human health, contamination of ground water, or migration of contaminants to adjacent land.

The 1970 Environmental Protection Act is the driving force behind the treatment of contaminated land. The main types of contaminants are:

  • toxic or carcinogenic chemicals, such as cyanide, arsenic, mercury and benzene;
  • phytotoxic metals, including lead, chromium, nickel, copper, cadmium and zinc;
  • organic contaminants such as oils, solvents and phenols;
  • corrosive substances, such as acids and sulfates;
  • flammable, toxic or asphyxiating gases, such as methane, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide.
  • And then there’s asbestos and radioactive substances

In 1995, the EPA created a program to encourage the cleanup and redevelopment of a class of properties, termed “brownfields.” According to a white paper from the Center for Creative Land Recycling, a brownfield is a property where the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.

This definition basically makes the brownfields a real estate problem. Cleaning up a brownfield often results in the removal of a potential threat to human health or the environment. And since the EPA program has determined that brownfields are being driven by market forces of real estate development, the solution must focus on the reuse of the property.

The white paper stated: There is currently an ongoing effort within the federal and state regulatory communities to develop inventories of known brownfield sites. Unfortunately, there exists no standard criteria for determining whether or not a given property is a brownfield. This is because it is not simply the contamination itself that makes a property a brownfield, but rather the effect this contamination has on the ability of a property to realize its highest and best use.

Between 1997 and 2012, more than 2.6 million acres of California farmlands were converted to commercial developments, according to Farmland Information Center. Farm and grazing lands in the state have decreased by more than 1.4 million acres between 1984 and 2010. During that time, urbanization accounted for the vast majority of this loss, nearly 1.1 million acres. 

Considering that most of the land around Hollister was either farmland or grazing land at one point, there could be numerous toxins at the more than 30 development sites around the city. Swanson commented that he is not aware of any cleanup activity at the other projects, and said Benchmark Corporation, the developer of the Cerrato site, has gone beyond what any other developer in the area has done.

The city council was to consider an agenda item at the Sept. 19 meeting to approve Cerrato subdivision that would authorize execution of the agreement for the improvement with Cerrato Hollister L.P. LLC and UCP Hillcrest Hollister, LLC. Upon Councilman Karson Klauer’s request, the agenda item was postponed until the Oct. 17 meeting. In reality, the subdivision is not approved to move forward at this time.

A message left for Benchmark on Friday was not immediately returned.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]