WESTMINSTER — Twenty-five families who live in a neighborhood that was declared a Superfund site must leave their homes for three months next spring while federal cleanup teams excavate large trenches of tar-like toxic waste buried in their yards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to hire a contractor for the long-awaited cleanup this fall and begin removing the 50-year-old oil refinery sludge from the housing tract in April or May, said EPA project manager Dick Vesperman.
Just east of Golden West Street near Westminster Mall, the 73-home neighborhood is one of the most unusual and troublesome sites on the nation's Superfund list because the black goo frequently oozes onto lawns, gardens, patios and swimming pools. Rarely has the EPA removed people from their homes during toxic cleanups because most dumps are in industrial or commercial areas.
Twenty-five households on Kathy and Allen streets and Sowell Avenue that have a thick layer of sludge buried in their back yards must relocate for an estimated 90 days.
Also, as many as 45 other families--those who live within 100 feet of the waste and others who suffer health problems, such as respiratory disease that might be aggravated by the project--will be moved out for two to three weeks, Vesperman said.
EPA officials say the families will be relocated at the expense of the federal government because the digging could release dangerous fumes, and the heavy construction equipment and gaping holes in the ground could pose safety problems.
The petroleum waste, which is extremely acidic and contains some cancer-causing and noxious chemicals such as benzene and sulfur, was buried in two deep trenches before the homes were built in the late 1950s. Each trench is a block long, 12 feet deep and 12 to 14 feet wide.
The residents have mixed emotions about leaving. Some are reluctant to go, but most have been eager for the cleanup work to begin. For more than a decade, they have been living with globs of acidic waste occasionally seeping into their yards and engineering teams descending on their neighborhood to repeatedly test the soil, air and water.
"No one wants to have to leave, let's face it," said Bonnie Haynie, who lives on Sowell Avenue and must relocate for several months. "But if that's what it takes to get it done, the sooner the better. Let's do it. I just wish it were over. We've been living with this hanging over our heads for so long now."
The Westminster site--the first in the EPA's western region to involve major relocation of residents--has raised interesting problems for the agency.
Nationally, the EPA has had to relocate neighborhoods only a handful of times over the 13-year life of the Superfund program, including Love Canal, N.Y., and Times Beach, Mo., where the federal government bought residents' homes so they could leave permanently.
At the Westminster site, the EPA staff has had to learn to communicate with residents who speak nine languages, and find ways to ease the residents' worries about everything from security of their empty homes to well-being of their dogs and cats.
"This region has never had to do this to this extent before," Vesperman said. "We're very much aware of the residents' concerns with respect to their pets and security and storage of materials while they are gone. The biggest challenge for us is the number of pets we would have to relocate."
The federal agency will provide relocation options for the families, and has promised to provide security patrols and find temporary homes that accept pets.
Most of the waste is as hard as asphalt, which makes it easier to remove than a liquid. But it often melts in hot weather and oozes to the surface, posing a danger of acid burns and giving off fumes that can trigger respiratory problems, nausea and headaches.
The waste and contaminated soil will be hauled to an undetermined location for treatment and disposal. If tests show that shallow ground water has also been contaminated, pumps will be installed to remove it. Drinking water has not been polluted.