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Recycling plant dangers cited

The EPA tells neighbors of a former Halaco site in Oxnard to beware of radioactive materials.

July 03, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to educate Spanish-speaking residents about the potential hazards of living near an abandoned metal recycling plant in South Oxnard, three federal workers visited a strip mall along Hueneme Road on Monday to spread the word to retailers and their customers.

The Environmental Protection Agency crew carried 300 yellow handouts written in Spanish and English alerting the public about the dangers of trespassing on the former Halaco Engineering site, where smelting was conducted for nearly 40 years until the plant was closed in late 2004 after the company filed for bankruptcy.

Early last year, state regulators asked the EPA to assume control of the cleanup of the 43-acre site at the south end of Perkins Road, adjacent to the ecologically sensitive Ormond Beach wetlands.

To date, the EPA has spent more than $5 million studying the level of pollution at the coastal property. The agency took several months this spring to stabilize and cover a massive slag pile more than 40 feet high.

Wayne Praskins, the EPA's remedial project manager on the Halaco site, said Monday that the hazardous and radioactive materials remaining do not pose an immediate health risk unless people trespass on the property.

"There are low levels of the various metals that were present in the various scrap materials that Halaco had processed, including radioactive thorium," Praskins said.

"If people are exposed to these chemicals over the long term, there's a risk of cancer and other effects."

Radiation levels measuring from two to 100 times normal have been detected, the flier states, but the EPA earlier said this amount was still considered "low level" and posed no immediate risk to humans and wildlife.

Thorium enters the body through inhaling or swallowing. Studies show that inhaling thorium dust causes increased risk of developing bone, lung or pancreatic cancers.

Despite working half a mile north of the proposed Superfund cleanup site, most merchants contacted said they were unaware of the former metal recycling plant.

"This was my first time hearing about this," said Veronica Garcia, proprietor of Veronica's Beauty Salon, who allowed the EPA workers to leave the four-page fliers on her counter.

Speaking in Spanish, the chef at a local restaurant said he would take several fliers and make sure to hand them out to diners.

Jose Garcia, an EPA community involvement coordinator, said he would work with local housing agencies, such as Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., and youth and community groups to get the word out about the potential danger on site.

Also, a second community meeting will be held later this summer to give residents a chance to learn more about the contamination and the cleanup efforts.

Steve Mattern, an Oxnard Fire Department official who oversees environmental compliance within the city, said a 60-day deadline given to the current landowners to tear down several structurally unsafe buildings by next week had been extended.

Because swallows have built dozens of nests over the years in the rafters of the buildings to be demolished, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instructed the EPA not to disturb active nests during the nesting season, from Feb. 15 to Sept. 1.

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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