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Norwalk Asks U.S. for Closure of Tank Farm


NORWALK — The City Council has called for the closure of a Department of Defense facility where millions of gallons of jet fuel are stored in the southern area of the city. The council accused the government of moving too slowly to make the facility earthquake-safe.

Council members also said a recent fuel leak and the discovery of contaminants in a well on the site indicate the tank farm poses a serious threat to ground water supplies.

The council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution calling on local and federal legislators to press for the tank farm to be closed.

"They (the government) were supposed to do quite a few things and I haven't seen them deliver on any of it," said Councilman Luigi A. Vernola, one of the main opponents of the tank farm.

But a military spokesman said design work to make the facility earthquake-safe already has begun. Construction is scheduled to begin in March, 1991, and be completed 18 to 24 months later, said Lt. Col. Pharris D. Johnson, commander of the Defense Department's seven-state Defense Fuel Region West. Johnson said the legal requirements of government contracting prevent the $1.7-million project from being completed sooner.

"We're going to accelerate it at every point we can, but this is the government contracting process we have to work with," Johnson said. "Everything has to be competitively bid."

The tank farm has 12 fuel storage tanks with a total capacity of 38 million gallons. It supplies bases in California, Nevada and Arizona through a series of government and private pipelines, and by truck, Johnson said.

The tank farm became a source of intense city concern last summer after results of a seismic safety study were released. The study by Libby Engineers of San Diego said a strong earthquake could cause the tanks to leak and electrical connections to spark, which could trigger an explosion.

The Department of Defense pledged to make $1.7 million in improvements suggested by the study.

The earthquake safety study added to the facility's recent problems. A 1987 study by another consultant discovered about 3,800 cubic yards of soil contaminated with heavy fuel oil. Benzene, a cancer-causing agent, was detected. Lead was detected 27 feet below the surface.

The report also said relatively high levels of benzene and another solvent were detected in water samples drawn from a test well at a depth of about 40 feet.

But the study concluded that the contamination of ground water was not a threat to the public because it was far above the aquifer from which the city draws its water.

(The five water companies serving Norwalk draw their water from depths of 236 feet to 1,250 feet, according to a city report.)

The study noted that buried waste oil was discovered in 1985 in two areas in the southeast section of the tank farm. The report also said two spills of unknown amounts of jet fuel occurred in 1968 and 1969.

The Department of Defense has begun the second phase of its study, which includes digging additional water-monitoring wells to determine the extent of the contamination and how to best remedy the problem. The second phase is scheduled to be completed in August, Johnson said.

There is evidence of additional contamination at the site. In December, fuel was discovered in a previously clean monitoring well, according to a Defense Department official. The water from the well is 22 to 30 feet below the surface, more than 200 feet above the area from which Norwalk draws its ground water, said W.E. Goode, environmental quality division chief.

Goode noted there was a fuel spill last September from a pipeline just west of the monitoring well, but Johnson said the fuel from the spill has not yet been identified as the source of contamination.

About 40 gallons of unleaded gasoline leaked from the pipeline, which is privately operated by Southern Pacific Pipeline, Johnson said. The Defense Department ties into private pipelines, which run through the facility.

Seven truckloads of contaminated soil were removed from the tank farm after the September spill, Goode said.

The disclosure of that leak has heightened the fears of city officials, who commissioned their own study on Norwalk's water system last May.

A preliminary report made public in November indicates some of Norwalk's underground water is contaminated with tetrachloroethane and trichloroethane, two industrial solvents that are suspected of causing cancer.

Since 1982, three wells have been closed in Norwalk because of ground water contamination. Several sites, including the tank farm, are being investigated as possible sources of contamination.

The resolution approved Tuesday night was the strongest official action taken against the tank farm to date. Some residents have opposed the tank farm for years.

Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) also may be reconsidering his position on the tank farm.

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