A petroleum sludge that has seeped into backyards and swimming pools in a Westminster neighborhood presents a low-risk health threat that will take years to clean up, state officials said Thursday.
"If we would have found vapors that were dangerous or at explosive levels, we would have evacuated you from your homes," said Angelo Bellomo, Southern California's top official of the state Department of Health Services toxics division.
"We don't want you thinking that this is the worst hazardous-waste site in the state," he said. "It's not. But what is unusual is that we have people living above this site."
When asked to rate the health threat in the neighborhood caused by the tarlike sludge, Dr. Lynn Goldman, a state epidemiologist, said that "it's a two or three" on a scale of one to 10.
But most of the more than 70 residents who attended Thursday's meeting expressed frustration with the state's slow pace for studying the hazard and cleanup efforts.
Resident John Burns had asked state officials why studies were planned through the year 1991.
"I was told by private companies who are usually hired to come in and haul away contaminated dirt that if they were given the go-ahead, this site could be cleaned up in five months," Burns said.
However, Bellomo, who attended with half a dozen other state health officials, said progress was deliberate, to avoid doubling cleanup efforts. As an example, he noted that the Stringfellow Acid Pits near Riverside were first cleaned up in 1970, only to have the state return after more toxic chemicals were found.
Residents were given an update--including a slide presentation--on their housing tract, which was added last week to the state's Superfund cleanup list.
The decision to add the neighborhood to the state's cleanup plan came just weeks after a state analysis of soil, water and air samples found a suspected carcinogen and other toxic chemicals in the Westminster neighborhood, east of the San Diego Freeway near the Golden West Street off-ramp.
The chemicals are similar to those found at the abandoned McColl hazardous-waste dump in Fullerton, a former dump for aviation fuel byproducts, drilling muds and other refinery waste.
The addition of the site means that cleanup efforts can get under way and will be paid for through the state's $100-million Superfund program.
Before cleanup can begin, several studies will begin to give state health officials better knowledge about the volume of the waste, its toxicity and concentration.
John Scandura, a supervisor in the toxics division, said: "We really don't know any of those facts yet. But we will get a better picture when our studies are completed."
State health officials said they will invite representatives from the state Department of Real Estate to answer questions concerning the disclosure of the waste site to potential property buyers.
Many residents expressed concern that they could lose property value if they have to sell their homes before the site is cleaned up.