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Toxic Waste Cleanup at Atwater Will Begin Soon

May 14, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The first phase of a $3-million toxic cleanup at the closed Franciscan Ceramics factory in Atwater will begin later this month, state officials told a community group this week.

The cleanup is being funded by Los Angeles-based Schurgin Development Co., which wants to build a $60-million shopping center on the 45-acre site. The property is contaminated with lead-tainted ceramic sludge and pottery chips from almost 80 years of producing dinnerware.

State officials and a Schurgin representative told a group of 75 Atwater residents Tuesday that experts soon will take samples of soil, water and air at the site to determine the level and extent of contamination. Based on those results, Schurgin is to submit more complete plans to the state Department of Health Services for required approval and the actual cleanup may start by late December.

On Superfund List

The former ceramics factory was placed on the state Superfund list of hazardous waste sites in 1984, which makes it available for cleanup funds. But since the site ranks near the bottom of that list, Schurgin instead applied for a $5-million low-interest loan from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to finance the cleanup, said Emmett Albergotti, a Schurgin vice president.

Albergotti said the firm plans to move forward with the cleanup regardless of whether the loan is approved.

Schurgin wants to build a 375,000-square-foot shopping center with about 30 stores on the site--one of the largest parcels available for development in Northeast Los Angeles. The firm has entered into an agreement to buy the property from a British firm, Wedgewood Ltd., for about $22 million. Wedgewood bought the property from Franciscan Ceramics in 1979.

Tuesday's meeting was the second of about five planned by state health officials and Schurgin to inform community residents of their progress. State officials said they will also set up a file at the Atwater branch of the Los Angeles Public library with up-to-date documents about the contamination and the proposed cleanup plans.

Fears of Spread

Many of the 75 residents who gathered at an Atwater elementary school Tuesday night expressed fear that the contamination has spread beyond the property and that the cleanup procedure might stir up long-dormant pollution.

"My main concern is dust" that may be contaminated with toxic wastes, said Cecilia Bachicha, who lives across the street from the Franciscan property.

Others expressed concern that Schurgin would take only superficial measures to clean up the area. "I sort of wonder if they can get it cleaned up that well after 80 years," said Ed Waite, president of the Atwater Homeowners Assn.

The Franciscan Ceramics factory--bounded by Los Feliz Boulevard, Perlita Avenue, Verdant Street and the Southern Pacific right-of-way--was one of the largest tile manufacturers in the country and was known for such pattern names as Desert Rose and Apple. It closed in 1984 because of declining sales.

Glazing sludge was dumped into gullies at the western end of the property until 1972, and preliminary tests in 1984 showed that the soil was highly contaminated with lead, zinc and chromium. Those tests also indicated some contamination of nearby ground water, but state officials are unsure whether that is due to the Franciscan factory or to a regionwide problem.

Schurgin and state health officials estimate that about 100,000 cubic yards of soil up to 30 feet below the surface are contaminated. They said one possible solution would be to truck the contaminated soil to a toxic dump site. Another would be to remove the tainted surface soil, encase the rest in an undergound plastic lining and seal the top with concrete.

On Tuesday, state officials and Schurgin's Albergotti attempted to reassure Atwater residents that the contamination posed no immediate toxic danger. But not everyone walked away convinced.

"There's a lot of contradictory information being passed between all the different groups," Waite said. "All we can do is place our faith in the DHS and hope that they can handle this."

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