JoAnn Nakatani hopes there's toxic waste in her back yard. She's praying that it will take years for authorities to dig up that awful goo leaked by Brea's old Petrolight plant.
Why? Because her 15-acre strawberry field on Imperial Highway is at stake--and the lease runs out in 6 months.
"They can't sell the land until all the waste is dug up," Nakatani said, her hands stained blood-red from hours of berry sorting. "So we're hoping that takes a long time. We'd stay forever if we could."
The chemical company has moved on. According to Petrolight, it is not at all clear whether the plant left a mess behind. A consultant is poking around in the dirt to see what is there and whether it needs hauling away, a company spokesman said. Local health authorities say solvents, diesel and waste oil are in the ground.
No Waste Under Strawberry Field
The petrochemical gunk is not under Nakatani's field, she wants everyone to understand clearly. It's beneath the dirt where the half-destroyed old refinery stands, near her field. And the waste is a long strawberry's throw from a row of orange trees and the commercial beehives also on the tract.
But this may be the last year for Nakatani's white, wood-frame stand, crowded one recent evening with last-minute customers scrunching gravel under tires as they wheeled in to buy freshly picked berries at closing time. The land could be sold for development after a toxic cleanup.
"We may not be farmers anymore," Nakatani said, sawing a large box of berries in half for a woman and her granddaughter. "People think that the fruit will still fall from the sky. But you gotta grow it. As soon as they put up industrial buildings, what then?"
Strawberries are to the Nakatani family what cars are to the Fords. Several generations of Nakatanis in Orange County have turned dirt, water and strawberry seedlings into their own kind of red gold.
Those days are passing, in a familiar county story of developers and builders growing houses and industrial plants where farms once stood. There is more money in condos than cabbage.
What farmland remains, at least for the Nakatanis, is expensive and hard to find. Her father-in-law died recently, and the family lost its only other strawberry farm, in Anaheim, she said.
Difficult to Replace
The property under their M & M Farm in Brea is "worth an arm and a leg," Nakatani said. And the family is pretty sure that it could not replace such a good location soon, not at the $1,000-an-acre monthly rent paid now.
"Anyone with 15 acres to spare, we'll take it," Nakatani said. "I have customers out looking for ground. Another one offered her neighbor's back yard. Ground is just not available."
The strawberry-lovers-for-contaminated-soil imbroglio began unfolding about a year ago, when city inspectors investigated an upsurge in fires in the neighborhood, said Brea Fire Capt. Greg Edmonson, head of the department's hazardous-materials unit.
"We found out (the cause of the fires) was one of the demolition companies tearing down the Petrolight plant," Edmonson said. The cutting torches were starting accidental fires.
It turns out that no official knew about the plant shutting down, however, so Edmonson sat down with company officials to review their demolition schedule and a list of chemicals stored at the site. The Orange County Health Care Agency conducted some soil tests.
"We do have an active cleanup there," said Mike O'Donnell of the county's hazardous-material management unit.
Soil Contamination Tested
The soil contamination is apparently not too serious, health officials said. But until testing is completed, no one knows what nastiness might have to be trucked away.
Petrolight will haul away anything hazardous found in the ground, said Raymond R. Hirsch, a senior legal vice president at the company's corporate headquarters in St. Louis.
"If there is any contaminated soil, we will remove it," he said.
Hirsch said that diesel oil was never stored on the 23-acre site and that to his knowledge there was no soil contamination.
He also said the company is not now negotiating to sell the property.
If the soil is contaminated, said Edmonson of the county's hazardous-materials unit, any sale would be unlikely until the owner paid to clean it up.
"It boils down to financial responsibility," Edmonson said. "I see any prospective buyer for that property holding up until everything is cleared up. And if contamination is there, it could take a year or two, or longer."
Well, that's fine by Nakatani.
It Beats Slinging Hash
Even though strawberry acids crack her fingernails and skin, "like pouring lemon juice into a cut," Nakatani said sorting berries beats slinging hash any day. After a short period as a waitress at a coffee shop in Anaheim, Nakatani married into this line of work and loves it.
"I used to think strawberries grew on trees," she said. The only ones she had ever eaten before marriage came from her future father-in-law, when he dropped by the coffee shop, Nakatani said.