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Tests Detect Wide Contamination at Military Fuel Depot : Environment: Study finds tainted soil and ground water under homes 500 feet south of the 50-acre facility. But officials say the problem does not pose a health threat.


NORWALK — Recent tests indicate that contaminants from the Department of Defense's jet fuel depot have traveled farther than previously known, tainting soil and ground water under residences 500 feet south of the depot property line.

But most of the contamination, which includes cancer-causing benzene, is 10 to 30 feet below the ground--too deep to threaten the health of residents and probably too shallow to taint the area's drinking water supplies, a Defense Department spokesman and water quality officials said last week.

More tests will be needed to determine the precise depth of the fuel contamination, but the data did not suggest that the fuel has contaminated drinking water supplies, said Jim Ross, a senior engineer with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The water companies serving Norwalk draw their water from depths of 240 to 1,250 feet.

Tests in January, 1991, showed that contaminants had traveled six feet beyond the facility's southern boundary.

The fuel depot, which has 12 jet fuel storage tanks with a capacity of 38 million gallons, is on the southeast corner of Norwalk Boulevard and Excelsior Drive. Officials said spills, leaks and some unsound environmental practices over the decades contributed to the contamination.

Lt. Col. David Herrick, commander of the Defense Fuel Support Point, said the recent tests determined only how far the fuel contamination has moved to the south of the 50-acre facility.

More tests will be conducted in the next several weeks to determine how far contaminants have spread to the west. Preliminary tests indicate that the spread of fuel to the west is much less extensive than to the south, Herrick said. Contamination has not spread to the north or east, he said.

The Defense Department has begun pumping fuel-tainted water out of the ground, the first part of a cleanup effort that could take as long as 16 years to complete, Herrick said.

Vapors drawn from the contaminated areas will be burned at the Defense Department facility. A treatment system also will be set up to remove contaminants from tainted water.

"We'll do whatever we have to do to clean it up," Herrick told a gathering of city officials and residents at a community meeting last week.

City officials praised the cleanup effort, but they still contend that millions of gallons of highly flammable jet fuel should not be stored in the middle of a residential area.

"I'm really impressed," said Mayor Robert J. Arthur, "(but) we want to see the tank farm moved."

The Department of Defense has rejected pleas from officials to close the tank farm.

A consultant hired by the Department of Defense conducted the recent tests that revealed the extent of the contamination to the south of the tank farm.

Groundwater Technology Inc. of Torrance discovered pools of fuel floating atop underground water as far as 300 feet from the southern border of the tank farm.

The consultant also discovered significant amounts of dissolved fuel another 200 feet to the south, beneath houses and apartments on Cheshire and Belshire streets and Thornlake Avenue.

The contaminants apparently moved through underground water about 30 feet down and seeped upward, tainting soil within 10 feet of the surface in some areas.

Herrick said the first of as many as 16 special wells to clean up the contamination will be drilled later this month. The wells will reach under the residential property to the edge of the contamination.

A handful of residents at the community meeting said they were still worried about the health effects of the contamination.

George Zaragoza, who lives on Hopland Street just west of the tank farm, complained of odors coming from the monitoring well that was installed in front of his home to test for contamination.

"I don't think they're telling us the truth," Zaragoza said.

Another resident wondered whether the four cancer deaths in her neighborhood during the past several years were related to the contamination.

Herrick said air monitoring performed earlier this summer did not detect potentially explosive fumes or fumes that posed an immediate health risk to residents.

A more comprehensive study is being conducted to project the long-term health effects of exposure to fumes from the tank farm. The study is expected to be completed in October, Herrick said.

The Department of Defense runs most of the tank farm, which supplies bases in California and Nevada through a series of government and private pipelines and by truck.

But it also leases about two acres to Santa Fe Pacific Pipelines Inc. The firm has operated a pump station to move fuel through its pipelines since the 1950s, a spokesman said.

Herrick said that it has not been determined how much of the contamination came from the government operation and how much came from Santa Fe Pacific Pipelines.

The Defense Department used at least one environmentally unsound practice that has since been abandoned: Until 1982, contaminated water that accumulated in the fuel tanks was drained on the ground. Tainted water is now treated before it is dumped into county sewers, officials said.

In addition to the environmental work, the Department of Defense is in the middle of a $4.2-million program to protect the tank farm against damage from a strong earthquake.

A seismic safety study released three years ago said that a strong earthquake could cause the tanks to leak and electrical connections to spark, possibly triggering an explosion.

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