When Gov. George Deukmejian signed a bill recently to qualify the Oxnard Dunes for Superfund cleanup money, neighborhood residents hoped that any toxic wastes would be speedily removed.
However, the State Department of Health official overseeing the project says a cleanup of the 11 1/2 acres, which, during the 1950s, was a dumping ground for waste from oil fields, may not take place for years--if at all.
"If we identify a problem and have to take action, it could be two years" before the area is cleaned, said Jim Smith, project supervisor for the Toxic Substances Control Division of the state Department of Health Services.
"My own guess is that a cleanup won't be necessary," he said. "I kind of doubt we have a risk." Even before a specific hazard can be discovered, a complicated series of steps to rank the Oxnard Dunes among the state's 350 other designated Superfund sites will stall the process further, he said. A Santa Ana attorney who has filed suits seeking $20 million in damages for each of the area's 138 residents criticized Smith's projections as "cavalier and nebulous."
Study of Site Needed
"All they're saying is, 'We'll get to it when we get to it,' " said Conrad G. Tuohey.
Tuohey said Oxnard Dunes deserve special consideration because it is a residential area, whereas many of the other sites are uninhabited. "To say that the Dunes has to be compared and contrasted with some 300-odd other sites is ludicrous."
The immediate hurdle is a site-characterization study, which would determine the scope of contamination in the area where previous studies have found potentially dangerous subterranean gases.
Such a study, which Smith said would take about a month and cost at least $250,000, ranks a site against others competing for Superfund assistance.
Although 15 California toxic-waste sites already have qualified for cleanup within the next five years, about 335 have not. However, many of those probably will not be studied before Oxnard Dunes because they are far from population centers or show no sign of presenting an immediate hazard, Smith said.
The bill, proposed by Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria) and signed into law Sept. 24, authorizes the health services department to spend an unspecified sum to investigate the possibility of dangers at Oxnard Dunes and remove them. Without such a bill, no oil dump could qualify for Superfund aid, O'Connell said.
But the new law does not guarantee a prompt study of the Oxnard Dunes, Smith said.
"We're going to have to sit down and say, 'Where does it fit in, and what's going to come off the list in its place?' " Smith said.
Health risks surfaced in the western Oxnard neighborhood in October, 1985, when routine soil samples taken by a Camarillo contractor seeking a building permit bore a "gasoline-like" odor.
A subsequent test by the builder found DDT, benzene (a known carcinogen) and other poisonous chemicals in the sandy soil of the neighborhood a mile and a half north of Channel Islands Harbor. Local health officials at first suspected that underground tanks at a nearby gas station were saturating the soils, but an investigation failed to find leaks in the tanks.
Subdivided in 1964
Then county health officials, armed with property records and old aerial photographs, discovered that Oxnard Dunes was an oil-field dump site before being purchased and subdivided into about 100 lots in 1964.
A subsequent soil sample by the state Department of Health Services found no benzene or other chemicals that had showed up at first; however, they revealed the presence of explosive gases. However, scattered samplings of the neighborhood's 55 dwellings have detected no gases collecting, said Greg Smith, an official with the Ventura County Department of Environmental Health.
City officials have nonetheless declared a moratorium on building in Oxnard Dunes pending the outcome of the state's investigation into the dangers of building or living in the area.
Residents, meanwhile, are pursuing their lawsuit seeking damages from virtually every business, individual or governmental agency that has owned, sold or aided in the sale of the property--from the estate of the land's original owner, Dominick McGrath, to the dump-site operator, Humacid-MacLeod. Development companies and real estate agents also are named.
A second lawsuit filed by residents seeks to force those same parties to pay for the site-characterization study.
Smith blames the lawsuits for thwarting state efforts to persuade past landowners to pay for the study. Financing the study might be construed as an admission of guilt, he said.
Oxnard Dunes, which remains only partly developed, looks like a typical suburban neighborhood, studded with tract housing along winding roads. The only signs of residents' concern are skull-and-crossbone symbols and angry graffiti. Residents and landowners, meanwhile, say they are growing impatient with the state.
"They came out here in moon suits and fire trucks in March of 1986, and in May they said they had to do more testing," said Paul K. Dolan, a spokesman for Oxnard Dunes' residents and property owners. "Here it is October, 1987, and they still haven't done any testing. We feel like we've been lied to."