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Trouble Spreads Underground From Leaking Tanks : Owners Test Thousands of Containers, Clean Up Toxic Spills That Pose Threat to Water Supplies

August 28, 1988|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

In Signal Hill, an oil field equipment company has leaked a poisonous solvent into the ground water, and a large pool of gasoline, apparently from another location, has flowed under the company and probably the elementary school next door.

In Lakewood, construction of an office building on an old oil company storage site has been stalled for two years as property owners have bailed gasoline from atop the water table.

In Lynwood, Paramount and Long Beach, layers of gasoline up to five feet thick have been found beneath at least 10 service stations and car washes, and plumes of ground water are carrying the pollution onto neighbors' property.

These cases--among 225 discovered throughout the Long Beach area in the last five years--illustrate the hidden threat to ground water posed by leaking underground storage tanks. They have been found as owners of thousands of subterranean tanks have tested them for old leaks and begun to monitor them for new ones as required by a 1983 law.

How much leaking tanks have contributed to the widespread pollution of ground water in the Long Beach and Southeast areas is unclear, but state officials say ruptured tanks are probably a main source of the contamination.

Twenty-three public wells have been closed in the Southeast area, within 10 miles of Long Beach, and 80 more are contaminated. Three of the closed wells are in Bellflower, which borders North Long Beach.

Filtration System Budgeted

None of Long Beach's 30 municipal wells, most of which are exceptionally deep and protected by a series of natural clay barriers, has been polluted. But Long Beach water officials predict that some of their wells will be contaminated within a few years, and they have included a $5-million water filtration system in their long-range construction budget.

Larry Larson, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, said he is unsure whether the Long Beach water supply is directly threatened by leaking tanks. But, he added: "You just don't want gasoline in your ground water."

More than 170 of the area's 225 tank leaks have been found in Long Beach alone. That unusually high number is the result of aggressive enforcement of tank-testing laws.

Ahead of Other Cities

While many cities and counties are just beginning to enforce the 1983 state law, Long Beach began its inspection and enforcement program in 1985.

"In Los Angeles County, Long Beach was first to require monitoring and testing," said Josh Workman, tank-unit chief of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. "The original law had deadlines, and they took those deadlines seriously."

About 80% of Long Beach's 1,650 buried tanks have been tested and are permanently monitored for new leaks, compared to about 42% statewide and 30% countywide, according to enforcement agencies.

Another 1,000 tanks--including at least 500 installed during World War II and then forgotten--have been removed, Long Beach officials said.

Of Los Angeles County's 85 cities, only Long Beach, Los Angeles, Torrance, Santa Monica and Vernon oversee tank testing, monitoring and minor contamination cleanups. The county runs the tank program in unincorporated areas and the other cities.

Number Could Soar

County officials say the number of leaks detected in cities within their jurisdiction could soar during the next year as owners are pressed to test and monitor tanks by a mid-1989 deadline.

Even now, "we've got (leaks) all over the place. I don't even keep them in my head any more. There's too many of them," said Carl Sjoberg, county tank-inspection director. More than 1,300 have been reported countywide.

Through the end of July, in addition to Long Beach's 170 leaks, 10 had been reported in Lakewood, nine each in Paramount and Cerritos, eight each in Compton and Lynwood, seven in Signal Hill, and two each in Bellflower and Hawaiian Gardens.

Ground-water cleanups are supervised by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which officials say already has four times as many cases as it can adequately handle.

Because Long Beach found so many leaks so early, it moved a number of serious cases to the water board before the backlog developed. That has resulted in an uncommonly high number of completed cleanups, state officials say.

Cleanups have been completed in about 50 of the city's cases and are under way on about 20 more, according to city and state officials. Most of the closed cases involve only soil contamination and are easier to remedy than those affecting ground water.

City-Owned Tank Tests Lag

Despite its good record in forcing others to test their tanks, Long Beach has been slow to test its own; just 35 of 85 municipal tanks, or about 40%, had been tested or removed by late July, officials said.

"We're moving ahead with a program to test the other (municipal) tanks," said Ed Putz, acting city engineer. "But I can't give you a deadline. We're doing as many as we can with budgeted funds."

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