Decades ago, as the U.S. raced to be the first nation to reach the moon, manufacturer Aerojet developed and tested rockets at a site south of Highway 50 near Folsom and Rancho Cordova, then burned its chemical waste. Today, the area is a hazardous site contaminated by rocket fuel materials that can cause cancer.
Due to the health risks, an area surrounding the contaminated 75-acre site known as Area 40 was fenced off to keep the public out. But because of the impending south of Highway 50 housing project – which plans to construct homes nearby – and the city of Folsom's desire to build a park in the area, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control recently reached an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to lead the toxic waste cleanup.
Area 40, a stretch of land east of Prairie City Road, south of Highway 50 and north of White Rock Road, was designated a Superfund site by the EPA in 1983. That means it has been "identified by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Earlier this year, it was listed as a redevelopment priority.
At a public forum Wednesday evening at the Folsom Community Center, DTSC project manager Peter MacNicholl pitched about 20 skeptical residents on the specifics of the cleanup plan, which aims to remove dangerous toxic chemicals like trichloroethylene and perchlorate from the soil and groundwater.
Several hundred workers contracted by Aerojet will excavate more than 10,000 tons of soil, transporting it away from the site, and install a 600-foot treatment wall in the ground that would trap contaminants in the groundwater before they reach the surface, MacNicholl said. Two piping systems that will allow treatment of groundwater will be installed, and 3,400 feet of fencing will be erected to block access to an area where toxic vapors are rising out of the soil.
The DTSC hopes for cleanup to begin in 2022, and expects it will take about four months to complete, MacNicholl said. Aerojet will pay for the entirety of the project, which is expected to cost $6.2 million, he said.
It's possible that completely decontaminating the groundwater in some parts of Area 40 could take decades longer, which the DTSC has planned for, MacNicholl said. Aerojet has set aside an additional $2.6 million for a 30-year "remedy life that includes long-term operation, maintenance and monitoring" of the site, he said.
"All stakeholders benefit from the cleanup – humans, the environment, ecological receptors, the community with a park and open space/greenbelt, and the region with the ability to restore/redevelop a contaminated area," MacNicholl said.
After cleanup, if the land is determined to have successfully met DTSC standards signifying it is safe for human use, part of the area will be turned into a park, according to Folsom's land use plan. Nearby land has been earmarked for new homes, as part of the south of 50 housing project.
City Councilman Roger Gaylord III said Aerojet was already committed to cleaning Area 40, but thinks the impending housing development nudged the process along.
"I’m sure the momentum started from the south of 50 site," Gaylord said. "It's a piece of this whole build-out of south of 50 that they obviously want."
Gaylord emphasized that no one will be allowed to enter Area 40 until DTSC has ensured there is no longer a health risk.
"No way will we ever set human beings in a place that is dangerous or uninhabitable due to chemical exposure," he said. "I have a lot of concerns with development, but I never had a concern about the city jeopardizing health to develop something."
Mike LaFortune, the senior development director of Easton Development, the real estate arm of Aerojet, said the cleanup plan has been in the works since 2006, with the goal of putting the area "to a new, productive use" that includes a park and nearby homes.
But cleanup shouldn't be supported only by proponents of the controversial housing project, Gaylord said.
"It’s the right thing to do," he said.
Not all Folsom residents agree. At the public forum, vocal critics expressed doubt about the thoroughness of the cleanup, DTSC safety standards and the effectiveness of a fence in keeping people away from toxic fumes. Rob Burness, a member of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, also worried about the impact to wetland wildlife, which MacNicholl acknowledged was unavoidable.
"We need to have an aggressive plan that goes beyond the fencing and just removal of the land, the most contaminated soil," Burness said during public comment. "It needs to deal with potential that there will still be trespass, that wildlife will still be impacted, and the vapors will impact the surrounding parkland."