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down in the DUMP : Health Problems and Odors a Way of Life for McColl Site Neighbors

October 27, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Milo Burdick stands in the back yard of his four-bedroom house and sniffs the McColl toxic waste site. "Smell that?" he asks. It's a rhetorical question. There's no escaping the odor, which is faint but unmistakable, just a bit unpleasant, hard to describe, not quite up to the sulfurous-bordering-on-rotten-eggs smell of a really bad night.

"I've woken up on a bad night and it makes you nauseous," said Dave Bushey, who lives a few houses down the street from Burdick. "You're half a step from vomiting; it's that bad."

The houses are nice here on the Fullerton streets with elegant names like Tiffany Place and Fairgreen Drive, two-story homes with more than 2,000 square feet, well-tended front yards displaying trees and bushes lined up as neatly as soldiers in an honor guard.

Burdick, a solidly built man of 51 with a weathered face, gestures to his back yard, but says, "We're not out here much. We've got a pool, but what are you going to do with it?"

Not a lot as long as you've got that smell. Even without the smell, you've got the sight of black dirt-covered circles like a primitive culture's burial mounds. You also have an ugly foot-wide gash of tar-like toxic waste rolling down a hill maybe 40 feet away from that pretty back yard.

It's been 10 years now since the people near McColl learned that the unkempt swatch of land with the junked cars behind the houses was more than a place for drivers of off-road vehicles to roar the night away, more than just a run-of-the-mill dump, more than an eyesore that would be cleaned up someday, probably someday soon.

Some real estate agents said the unsightly area, next to the golf course of the private Los Coyotes Country Club, might become a park one day, a nice place for the children to play. The homes on Fairgreen commanded a premium for the golf course views.

But no developers, no real estate agents, no city or county or state officials told the residents what was beneath the ground, even below a part of the golf course: a legacy of the World War II years.

The dump was created in the 1940s, when oil companies producing high-octane aviation fuel deposited refinery wastes in sumps on land leased by oil industry consultant Eli McColl. Oil-drilling muds later were added to six sumps, which McColl eventually purchased.

The first people began moving into the area in northwest Fullerton, just south of Rosecrans Avenue, in the summer of 1978. They started feeling poorly soon afterward.

But at first they kept quiet, not wanting to drive the resale value of their homes down and counting on the city to neutralize whatever was in the dump or to clean it up and cart it away.

Then the state investigated and found that the material in the eight-acre dump was toxic; state health officials said the sulfuric acid, arsenic and benzene were not too dangerous to anyone right this minute, but in case of an earthquake or some other event that would unearth the waste, look out. The state made its findings public, and the demands for action started.

Homeowners might not have been falling over dead from the dump, but they knew they were having problems that their friends elsewhere didn't have. They complained of headaches, nausea and coughing, eye irritation, fatigue, difficulty in breathing and inability to sleep.

Filtration systems or bottled water replaced water from the tap; air purification systems were installed; fences separating back yards from the dump sites began sprouting barbed wire. They waited for help. And waited. And waited.

They're still waiting.

"We're frustrated; we're tired of it," said Betty Porras, a leader of the battle to get the dump cleaned and get life back to normal. "It's difficult to live with, day in and day out, when you've got something hanging over your head."

Porras has been a member of the McColl Dump Action Group for four years and now is the group chairperson. She says the group has succeeded in letting various agencies like the state Department of Health Services and the federal Environmental Protection Agency know that someone is watching them and clamoring for action.

Yet she expresses frustration because "it's taken so long. I feel that between politics and bureaucracy, it's long overdue that it be cleaned up."

Others have been worn down.

Cheryl Siegel moved into the house next door to the Burdicks in 1985, assuming that the dump would soon be cleaned up, as promised. She said she and her husband went to some homeowners' meetings but quickly became frustrated at how many years the cleanup would take even if it started immediately. She became weary, too, of listening to the bureaucrats' words that turned out to be empty.

"You get to the point where you can't even stand to talk to these people," Siegel said. "They just talk in circles. They have a standard pat answer that has nothing to do with the questions asked."

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