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EPA Proposes Plastic Cover for 190-Acre Toxic Landfill : Environment: It will never be a golf course, but cleanup efforts are making a difference at the toxic wasteland that once was considered one of the worst in the nation.


In the annals of toxic waste, a barren, 40 stories of trash in southeast Monterey Park ranks as something of a success story.

The defunct Operating Industries Inc. dump, once considered one of the worst toxic hazards in the state and nation, cleaned up its act enough to win favorable comment in a 1988 federal study. These days, some people, with a straight face, even mention the possibility of someday growing plants on the site, sandwiched between Monterey Park and Montebello.

However, the dump's toxic legacy runs deep. And its recovery is many decades away.

Officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now are presenting their latest solution: Top the 190-acre site with an elaborate plastic cover that could cost $61 million to $116 million.

Combined with an extensive system to extract and treat potentially harmful gases generated by the landfill, the cover would be designed to minimize malodorous emissions from the 30 million cubic yards of trash.

The idea is part of a proposal that could cost as much as $300 million and could go on for the next 45 to 60 years, officials said. The EPA's master formula for treating the dump will not even be complete until 1993, said Shelley Sussman, a federal environmental engineer.

"This site won't look . . . pristine," Brian Ullensvang, Sussman's engineer colleague, told an audience of three dozen residents at Montebello's Schurr High School recently.

He turned to face a mural that covered the school cafeteria wall, with a colorful panoply of birds of paradise, jonquils, gladiolus in the foreground and verdant mountains behind. "It won't look like this."

Later Sussman added: "Realistically, it will not be a golf course and it will not be a park. But that does not imply it is not safe to be in the neighborhood."

Today, six years after closure of the controversial landfill and four years after the site's inclusion on the federal Superfund list, even those who were the most vocal opponents of the dump say the situation has improved and the acrid odors are not as strong.

"Many people are disappointed with the speed of the cleanup. We all would like it to be done yesterday," said Hank Yoshitake, the long-time leader of a Montebello homeowners group as he walked in his driveway a block from the site. "But you walk around here now and you don't smell anything very often."

The dump's toxicity dates from the 1950s, when there was less fear of liquid wastes--and fewer regulations on dumping them. Oil companies, food companies, aerospace industries and waste haulers disposed of a vast range of toxic liquids, including such potentially cancer-causing substances as vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, benzene and toluene.

At least 200 million gallons of hazardous waste were dumped by as many as 4,000 companies, federal officials say.

Significant progress has been made on the most obvious problems. And now, when concerned citizens assemble to hear the latest federal briefing, as they did 10 days ago in Montebello, they tend to look back almost nostalgically.

During a break in the meeting at the school, Leland T. Saito recalled that as a boy 25 years ago, he and his buddies would go down into the bottom of the dump, then little more than a deep garbage pit near their homes, and shoot birds with slingshots.

Today, he pointed out, the dump is a substantial hillock, rising 150 to 250 feet above the landscape and appearing as a natural land formation to passers-by on the Pomona Freeway. It is so large now, residents say, that television reception has been fouled up because the dump's height blocks signals to the area.

Montebello Councilman William Molinari walked up and told the story of a man who lit his fireplace in the early 1980s. The entire hearth, he said, became ringed with a Bunsen burner-like flame because methane gas had apparently filtered underground from the dump and seeped into his house.

Samuel Kiang joined the two men, and described a house-hunting excursion in Montebello around the same time. He said the stench assaulted his nose when he rolled down his car window. He decided to settle a good distance away in Monterey Park.

The men recalled a series of Monterey Park and Montebello city council meetings that were marked by one angry debate after another during the 1970s and early '80s.

Despite possible $1,000-a-day fines and heavy criticism from state health and air quality officials, dump operators in 1981 defied orders to temporarily shut down.

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