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Orange County

Surf City Got a Much Bigger Oil Misting Than Believed

March 19, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

A greasy mist that rained down on a Huntington Beach neighborhood when an oil well valve malfunctioned affected 360 homes, more than three times the number originally thought, authorities said Thursday.

But most of the homes, within a quarter-mile of the former Ascon landfill near Magnolia Street and Pacific Coast Highway, did not suffer much damage, officials said.

Fire officials said the oil, which gushed more than 40 feet high Wednesday morning, landed on vegetation, sidewalks, plants, pools and cars, creating more of a nuisance than a health hazard.

The air quality remained safe after the air cleared, health and fire officials said. Symptoms for breathing petroleum vapor include dizziness and headaches for those outdoors during that time. Ocean breezes dissipated most of the vapors, said Pat Markley, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

"We don't believe there was any health threat to the public," she said.

At a community meeting Thursday night, authorities told residents that it will take the state five or six days to plug the well. The state also will remove any contaminated soil at the site.

Homeowner Ed Webb said he wanted to get other residents interested in filing a class-action lawsuit. He said he had just cleaned his motor home, parked in his driveway, when the oil erupted.

"It took about five hours to clean my pickup, and it's going to take me 14 to 16 hours to clean my RV," Webb said angrily. "Look at my plants, they're going to die. And who's going to pay?"

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has negotiated a cleanup plan with the new owner of the Ascon site, Cannery Hamilton Properties LLC, which did not own or operate the well.

Cannery Hamilton has set up a phone line to take claims from homeowners for reimbursement of cleanup costs, said EPA spokesman Francisco Arcaute. The number, (800) 766-6362, is expected to be operating after 7 a.m. today.

Cannery Hamilton hired a crew to steam off oil that had spotted the pavement, sidewalks and block walls on Magnolia Street.

The EPA identified Rialto-based Krik Co. as the well's owner and operator. EPA officials want to establish the company's ability to take care of the cost of cleaning the discharge site. First drilled in 1946, the well was left idle, though not abandoned, for at least three years.

The 38-acre Ascon site held garbage in the 1930s and was later used to hold construction debris.

Gregory Miral, one of the company's owners, could not be reached for comment. The EPA has scheduled a meeting for today with Miral and his attorney.

"We're concerned with getting someone other than [the government] to pay for this cleanup" on the site itself, said Robert Wise, the EPA's on-scene coordinator.

Samples of the oil were taken, as well as what was found in several large nearby tanks for testing, Wise said.

"There's no question that it was oil that spewed out," Wise said. But officials were not sure what was in the tanks. The lab results are expected by this afternoon.

Cannery Hamilton bought the property late last year. The well that erupted Wednesday is operated under a long-term lease established through previous owners of mineral rights under the property, a Cannery Hamilton spokeswoman said.

Fire officials urged residents not to wash their cars because the runoff would pollute the ocean, which is about 300 yards away. Instead, they said, residents should go to carwashes, where runoff is filtered.

Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Jill Hardy said she briefly toured the affected neighborhood and fielded phone calls from worried residents.

Coincidentally, the City Council last week heard an update from a state toxic-substances agency monitoring the Ascon landfill.

"They've got a new study going on at the site to make sure they clean it up properly," Hardy said. "The goal is to eventually clean it up in three to five years, once they get started."

Seven companies -- most of them oil firms -- promised to pay cleanup charges after a deal was struck last year.

All were identified by the state as contributors to the contamination of the site.

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