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EPA Proposes Superfund Cleanup at Drum Recycling Co. : Environment: Officials fear that chemicals from Cooper Drum Co. may seep into the Silverado Aquifer. Limited tests discover extensive soil and ground-water pollution.

February 16, 1992|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH GATE — The soil and ground water under a South Gate company appear to be so contaminated with chemicals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed putting it on the national Superfund List, which targets the country's most contaminated sites for cleanup.

The premises of Cooper Drum Co., 9316 S. Atlantic Ave., are polluted with industrial solvents and other chemicals, including cancer-causing vinyl chloride and benzene, an EPA spokesman said.

Cooper Drum refurbishes 55-gallon barrels that are used by industry to hold chemicals. The site has a history of pollution problems, which include caustic liquid leaks onto the grounds of a neighboring elementary school.

Limited testing at Cooper Drum discovered tainted soil at depths of 30 feet and polluted water 53 feet below the ground. Environmental officials say the pollution has the potential to reach the Silverado Aquifer, the source of drinking water for South Gate and other cities in Southeast Los Angeles County. The aquifer is about 600 feet down.

More extensive testing will take place if Cooper Drum is added to the Superfund List, a process that takes about seven months. That testing would also determine the size of the Superfund site, which would include contaminated areas that extend beyond the firm's 3.8-acre boundaries, said Thomas Mix, the EPA's local chief of site evaluation.

The EPA uses a point-rating system, based on the evidence of pollution and the threat it poses to the public, to determine whether a site should be on the Superfund List. To be considered, a site must receive at least 28.5 points. Cooper Drum scored 50.1.

"The (Superfund List) is a national listing of the most serious sites nationwide," Mix said. "This seems to have the eligibility requirements for that."

A Cooper Drum spokeswoman acknowledged that the firm has had contamination problems in the past. But lawyer Lisa Gold said she and company officials would review documents supporting the proposed listing and meet with EPA officials, "to work out whether, in fact, Cooper Drum Co. is responsible for this contamination they're alleging."

Cooper Drum took over the site from another drum recycler in 1976, Gold said. The firm is in an industrial section of South Gate.

The EPA contends that the firm's machine that cleans the used drums is responsible for at least some of the contamination.

The company uses sodium hydroxide, a caustic soap, to wash chemicals from the drums that it recycles. Cleaning solutions and chemical residue from the drums has leaked out of the washing tank and through cracks in the building into the ground, EPA officials said.

Further investigation could turn up other sources of contamination in the industrial neighborhood, officials said.

"Cooper is one of the biggest facilities in the area," said Lisa Nelson, Superfund List coordinator. "We concluded that Cooper must be a major contributor, but we can't say the contamination is due solely to Cooper."

Cooper Drum has been an environmental concern for years.

Concentrations of the industrial degreasing solvent perchloroethylene, or PCE, were discovered in the soil at Cooper Drum in 1984. The company had to truck away 180 tons of soil, which was contaminated through discharges of hazardous wastes, according to county health officials.

PCE contamination forced South Gate to close four wells in 1986. The wells, which remain closed, are southwest of Cooper Drum, in line with the flow of underground water, officials said. They suspect that the pollution may have come from Cooper Drum.

In 1987, the county Health Department's Emergency Response Team was called to Tweedy Elementary School, adjacent to Cooper Drum, after sodium hydroxide and oil began oozing from the soil. Students have not attended the school since 1988 because of soil and airborne contaminants from nearby industry.

High levels of the industrial degreasing solvent perchloroethylene, or PCE, were also found in the soil near the block wall that separates the company and the school.

The county cited Cooper Drum for the contamination and ordered the firm to remove the contaminated soil and begin testing to determine the extent of contamination. A consultant hired by Cooper Drum has performed the most extensive soil and ground-water testing so far.

Shortly after the 1987 incident, Cooper Drum spent about $200,000 to re-pipe its drum-washing machine and fix cracks in the building that houses it, Gold said.

Since then, "they haven't had a drop of wash liquids escape the system," she said.

If Cooper Drum is declared a Superfund site, it will be one to two years before cleanup work begins, said EPA spokeswoman Paula Bruin. The EPA will attempt to track down the parties responsible for the pollution and charge them for the cleanup.

South Gate officials, who have suspected Cooper Drum of being a source of water pollution for years, welcome the EPA involvement.

"As far as we're concerned, that seems to be another source of revenue to mitigate the problem," said Public Works Director James A. Biery.

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