Residents living over an abandoned toxic waste dump in a Westminster housing tract were told Friday that it may be three to five years before a cleanup begins.
Angelo Bellomo, head of the state Department of Health Services' toxics division in Southern California, told about 35 residents "we don't have the amount of information we would need to evaluate the site fully" and justify an immediate cleanup.
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. Refineries disposed of wastes there until the 1950s, when the site was covered and turned into housing lots.
Could Take Up to 2 Years
State studies providing data for a cleanup plan could take 18 months to two years, Bellomo told the residents and representatives of area health, water district and air quality agencies meeting at Westminster Civic Center, "so it could be another three to five years until a plan is implemented."
Bellomo said more tests are needed to determine whether families living in the 73-home tract may suffer long-range health effects, but he said that a tar-like sludge that has been seeping into backyards "presents no immediate health hazard."
He said workers paid by the state will continue to remove sludge deposits as they seep out of the ground, as they did earlier this week.
Based on chemical analysis of sludge samples, state officials believe that the material is made up of hydrocarbon byproducts derived from the first distillation of crude oil. The refineries responsible for dumping them have not been identified.
"We'll look at local oil refineries who were operating at that time and also some of the bigger ones in other areas," said John Scandura, a supervisor with the state Department of Health Services.
Some Not Satisfied
Some residents of the neighborhood, which is just east of the San Diego Freeway near the Golden West Street off-ramp, said after the meeting Friday that they were not satisfied with the state's assurances about the threat to their health.
Debra Ellis said: "I want to know what they mean by low levels of toxic materials. You heard the man. He said we're still at risk because the waste is still there."
Investor Richard Shinn of Newport Beach, whose partnership is seeking to build a hotel on a vacant half-acre in a nearby commercial zone, was adamant in his contention that the state is not moving fast enough.
"I've been waiting for four years on this thing," Shinn said. "We can't build until we clean this up, and we've offered to clean it up at our expense, but so far we haven't gotten an answer from the state."
Traces of the sludge have been seeping into swimming pools and backyards for years. But earlier this year it began appearing in greater quantities, prompting the tests of soil, water and gas samples by state health officials that were completed earlier this month.
Because the sludge is beneath homes, the problem is "not going to be solved overnight," Bellomo said.
"The unusual feature here is that it's actually in the backyards of some homes," he said, adding that "although the material, from our perspective, is not that hazardous," it makes it more difficult to find a remedy.
25 Drums of Sludge
He added that it is unlikely that any homes would have to be razed to remove the sludge.
This week a private environmental company hired by the state removed enough of the sludge from yards in the neighborhood to fill 25 drums holding 55 gallons each. Bellomo said that program will continue uninterrupted.
"We're not going to remove the source of the contamination," he said. "All that we're going to remove, on a rather routine basis, is what comes up to the ground and is sitting on top of the ground.
"We're going to scrape that off, put it in drums and dispose of it. It will continue to come up, and my guess is that in the yards that have this seep problem that it will always be a problem until a permanent remedy is implemented at this site."
In the meantime, Bellomo said, residents complaining about unusual health problems should contact the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Friday's meeting originally was scheduled as a gathering of representatives of governmental agencies. But officials at the meeting tried to answer questions and ease fears.
Westminster Councilwoman Anita Huseth said she was less concerned about the environmental threat after hearing from the experts. But she added that the city is ready to evacuate residents at a moment's notice.
"I'm surprised that the cleanup is going to take so long, but I guess that's the way government operates," Huseth said.
State officials promised residents a full report at a community meeting that was been rescheduled for Nov. 19 in Westminster.