More News

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.

BenitoLink Logo

Become a Member Today

Support your local independent news.

We work hard to give you the news and information you need. By becoming a member, you will be part of something bigger; BenitoLink, your community-supported news source.


John Chadwell (John Chadwell)

John Chadwell is an investigative reporter for BenitoLink. He has many years experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime that are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to:


I will be very interested in seeing the comments on this article.

Marty Richman

Submitted by (Mark Medina) on

This property is located in District 1 which I will represent beginning January 1st 2017. It is my commitment that I will investigate what is happening and I will also call Benchmark and once I have all the facts I will sit down with Benitolink and share my findings.

Submitted by Tod DuBois (John Galt) on

Sure would be nice to have the science on this rather than the drama. What the Cerrato family is responsible for...etc. etc. Clearly the new owner is complying but what about the hundreds of farmers wanting to sell their brown gold?  I knew a local farming family growing up - then I learned later on in life that the farmer bought a auto wrecking yard and dumped all the cars into the river to stop erosion. Dozens if not hundreds of wrecked cars dumped along the rivers edge to shore up farm land.  That thought still haunts me today and those steel frames slowly rust away at the bottom of the river. With law changes are all the old farmers now basically environmental criminals? What does that say about the future of "Ag"? 

Tod, you are correct - see my post with a reference to the Enirostor DTSC database which has a tab with links all the documents under Cerrato Property.

The concept of the Ag industry as keepers of the environment is relatively new and some PR company should get a lot of credit for making this a mantra; the PR guys did great.

Historically, the majority of the Ag industry were among the worst polluters - sometimes from ignorance, more often from greed and the rural Ag areas are stuck with the mess not to mention the residual of farm worker abuse.  If everyone is going to be blamed for their history, the Ag industry will have to lug their share.

Marty Richman 

Two thoughts pop to mind. The concentration of these hazardous chemicals must be low to allow all this activity in open air and to allow for reburial of the heavy metals where they will continue to leach into an aquifer. I am wondering what made the developer test the soil in the first place? Is this standard operating procedure?  How about all that construction near Ladd School? That is a former apricot orchard also. What is in that dust next to all those kids?

By the way, contrary to what Mr Swanson said, the toxic byproduct of apricot seeds is amygdalin. This is a cyanide compound, not arsenic.  Eating four ounces of apricot kernels (found inside the "stone") is considered a lethal dose. It is hydrolyzed in the intestines into carbs and hydrogen cyanide. Almost all stone fruit have this compound--peaches, plums, nectarines, even apples.  Arsenic was once common in pesticides and rodenticides.

--William McCarey

Submitted by Will McGuire (Conrad Condor) on

Haven't we been here before? anyone remember "Love Canal"? or Grand Junction Colorado where radioactive Uranium mill waste was used for fill in housing developments - burying the toxic waste isn't the same as detoxifying it - just cheaper!

So.... say in a few hundred years this poisonous mess leaks into the only clean water aquifer left........

This is typical of most government solutions - just keep kicking the can down the road!

So does this mean that a disclosure document will notify the potential and future buyers that they will be living above or around a contaminated substance burial site?

Submitted by (Bill Hea;y) on

Was this identified on their ER report? This should have been part of the initial process of applying for a permit to rezone and build. Where is their Environmental Impact report?

I received a letter in the mail about the 'clean up' efforts at the site mentioned in the article, now under residential development, I suppose because I live in the sphere of influence of the project. (However, I had no idea that the property would be developed a.s.a.p. from reading that letter.)

I no longer have that letter, but the firm that did the environmental engineering site work listed three ways to deal with the contamination and the most reasonable, prudent, cost effective and environmentally sound approach was the method they are now employing from what I can tell; bury it. I'm not sure if the San Benito County Water District participated in the project review to evaluate the potential risk to the water shed but I propose Benito Link contact Jeff Cattaneo for the answer to that concern. 

I didn't think to raise questions based on the information cited in the letter, but it was not a secret and I believe they performed all due diligence and public outreach.

Well, all those well thought-out comments cover the essentials of the topic.  I have no opinion at this time because I do not have the details.

I'll start with some easy ones, what was the condition (contaminants, location [depth], form, levels and condition-risk) before anyone touched it for this project.  I'll look for public records when I have a chance.

The Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) is not known for risk taking when it comes to remediation, they are more likely to be cautions based on their recent history..  Of course every situation is different.

Marty Richman

Submitted by (John Ucovich) on

My opinion, Marty, on this is that both the developer, the DTSC and possibly the local politicians tried to pull a quick one on this! Posting a public notice in the downtown library on "burying the contaminant" was not a very aggressive way of informing the public. I was wondering why all that heavy equipment was working so fast when the work got started! Who would anyone want to buy house with contaminated earth under them albeit under the street in front? This earth should be hauuled away from the site and disposed with properly. Also our Water District needs to "wade" in here! Maybe things need to be stopped until saner plans are in place!




Site History

The Site is located at 510 Hillcrest Road and consists of a 42-acre portion of a larger 44.21 acre parcel; with 2.21 acres being retained by the current Site owners for residential use. The site is currently an orchard, and has historically been used for agriculture since the early 1900s. UCP, LLC, the purchaser of the Site, requested DTSC oversight for the proposed development of the Site for residential development. UCP, LLC plans to develop the site with 265 single-family homes with 9,000 lineal feet of private roadways. The chemicals of concern at the Site include arsenic, lead, dieldrin, TPH-diesel, TPH-oil, and PAH compounds including benzo(a)pyrene, benz(b)fluoranthene, and dibenz(a,h)anthracene. The impacted soil will be excavated and consolidated underneath the planned private roads, below the utilities. A land use covenant will be placed on the private roadways and the Homeowners Association will maintain the private roads. [my emphasis].

Marty Richman

You are welcome.  I found the following particularly interesting [my emphasis]

"Note that natural background concentrations of arsenic are often well above the health-based CHHSL of 0.07 mg/kg; however, the California Environmental Protection Agency generally does not require cleanup of metals in soil to below background levels. Bradford (1996) estimated that background arsenic concentrations in California soil types range from 0.6 mg/kg to 11 mg/kg. Scott (1991) documented background arsenic concentrations ranging up to 20 mg/kg. Duverge (2011) concluded that the mean and upper estimate (the 99th percentile) for background arsenic levels in the San Francisco Bay Region are 4.61 mg/kg and 11 mg/kg, respectively. Based on our local experience and the abovementioned background studies, for this report an assumed background arsenic concentration of 11 mg/kg was used for comparison of the analytical results."

So, the 'background" arsenic level is in this part of California more than 100 times the health-based limit (but I don't see anyone leaving).

Marty Richman

If you go to the "Activities" tab in the database there are links to all the documentation including the environmental assessment reports (the first listed is 2013) to establish the condition of the soil.

My initial take is that DTSC made itself the lead agency on the clean up, so it will likely be done right and put the property back into some useful condition.  Whether you like ofr dislike a housing project is a different issue, but on first blush the roads work for burial.

Not sure what the do-able alternative might be?  A park of some type, I guess, not sure.

Marty Richman 

Submitted by (Jeff) on

How are these toxins going to stay were they're buried. I did not see a liner installed to contain this cocktail of chemicals. Over years would these toxins leach into the surrounding soil possibly contaminating the aquifer. Sounds like a quick cheap fix that was in practice in the 1950's and 60's. Remember our perchlorite problem caused by our defense contractors.

Jeff, neither the land owner nor developer are the lead agency on this voluntary clean-up, it is the State Department of Toxic Substances Control and they are the ones who specify the acceptable methods of disposal / protections based on the materials, levels of contamination and site analysis, including bore samples and water tables.

If you read my earlier post you would have seen that the natural background of arsenic in California already exceeds land California standards.  FYI, while ammonium perchlorate (and other perchlorates)  is highly soluble in water, arsenic is insoluble in water.  They are different kettles of fish.

For whatever it's worth I did sme consulting on the clean-up of the old GD Chemical Systems Division Coyote Valley site, although I never worked there when it was open.

Marty Richman 

Add new comment

Add Facebook comment

Comment using your Facebook account. Facebook comments will be published on this page, and on Facebook. It will not be posted to the "Recent Comments" list on the BenitoLink front page.