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Westminster Knew About Toxic Dump, Official Says

October 28, 1987|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

Westminster officials have been aware of an abandoned toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood in their city since shortly after it was covered with dirt and concrete and turned into home lots in the late 1950s, Planning Director Don Vestal acknowledged Tuesday.

In fact, city records indicate that "no one was that concerned about it at the time," Vestal said.

Preliminary results of tests completed earlier this month by state health officials indicated low levels of a suspected cancer-causing substance, benzene, and two other toxic hydrocarbon solvents--xylene and toluene--in the abandoned dump.

A meeting of state, county, city and water district officials at which those test results will be discussed has been scheduled for Friday at Westminster City Hall. But John Scandura, a supervisor in the state Department of Health Services office in Los Angeles, made it clear Tuesday that "the public is not invited" to that meeting--though he added that anyone who shows up will be allowed to observe.

Instead, Scandura said, a community meeting has been scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12. At that meeting, tentatively scheduled for the city's parks and recreation building, the state's findings will be described to the public, he said.

Vestal said the city has assigned a staff member to help coordinate information on the housing tract, just east of the San Diego Freeway near the Golden West Street off-ramp, built over the dump site.

Vestal said: "A review of our records does show that the city and the water (board) were aware of the material being buried there when the tract was built.

"There was apparently no concern about any health threat at that time.

"If you look at the case file, the implication is that no one was that concerned about it at the time."

He added that the city's level of knowledge about environmental hazards has grown since then.

Mayor Pro Tem Joy L. Neugebauer could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The city was warned about the site as early as April, 1959, about a year after a sump that had been used for the disposal of refinery wastes was dug up, relocated and covered, according to documents on file with the city.

In a letter to the city from the then-named state Regional Water Pollution Control Board, dated April 23, 1959, the board investigated an odor that was the result of "relocating materials which many years ago were deposited in an abandoned oil sump."

"The staff does wish, however, to call to your attention that because of the objectionable characteristics of this material, problems from other than water pollution may arise," the letter said.

When the sump was dug up, the wastes in it were moved to two large nearby trenches and then were covered with concrete and soil, Scandura said.

About 25 families in the 73-home tract have complained of seepage of a smelly, tar-like substance in their backyards, damage to cement and patio floors, and, in some cases, persistent coughs.

For years, traces of the sludge had been seeping into swimming pools and backyards in the tract. But earlier this year it began appearing in greater quantities, prompting tests of soil, water and gas samples by the state Department of Health Services.

Citing a lack of space and the technical nature of the raw data that will be discussed, Scandura said the public is not invited to the meeting Friday at which the results of those tests will be discussed.

But he added: "If the public does show up, they can observe."

Edward Reihl, who lives in the housing tract, said: "We weren't invited to the last community meeting the state had either. It was not their intention to have the public there, and they didn't like it when some residents showed up with attorneys, too.

"To me, it's an infuriating example of the Texas sidestep. At the last meeting they had, one official said the state has no intention of hiding anything. Anything they got that concerned us was going to be released to us. Then he had this guy John Scandura stand up and tell us why they couldn't release some raw data they had."

Another resident, Thomas Waller, said: "All 73 houses should have been notified of that last meeting. I'm concerned because if they start excavating and the equipment releases some toxic fumes, everybody would have to be evacuated. They could hit a pocket of some gas, and it could be dangerous."

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