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EPA ups stakes at Oxnard site

Officials say they will seek Superfund designation for an old metal recycling plant after toxic material is discovered nearby.

March 08, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Concerned about the extent of pollution at the beachfront property, federal officials announced Wednesday that they have taken steps to add a shuttered Oxnard metal recycling plant and a massive waste pile on surrounding property to a list of Superfund sites.

"We found that there were levels of metals and radioactive materials here that were posing a threat to human health and the environment," said Pete Guria, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's regional emergency response section. He said the agency would be investigating further to determine the most effective cleanup.

The 45-foot-high slag heap a few hundred yards from Ormond Beach is packed full of magnesium, aluminum, copper and other metals. The waste was generated by the former Halaco Engineering Co., a metal recycler long considered one of Ventura County's worst polluters.

Last week, EPA officials confirmed that radioactive thorium had leached to nearby wetlands and fenced off public access to the area while it is cleaned up. Studies show that inhaling thorium dust causes increased risk of developing bone, lung or pancreatic cancers.

The EPA is currently overseeing a $3-million emergency stabilization plan to reshape and buttress the slag pile into a gentle slope to prevent waste material from sloughing off into the adjacent wetlands and to reduce erosion from wind and rain. EPA contractors, outfitted in white jumpsuits with rubber gloves and protective face masks with dual respirators, also installed fencing and public warning signs at the site.

Last September, Chickadee Remediation Co. paid $2.6 million for 28.5 acres of the Halaco property that includes the slag pile. It spent an additional $270,000 for a 24-year lease on the 15 acres where the old smelting plant is located. It has since arranged to sell the property to Alpha and Omega Development Ltd.

The Texas-based Chickadee was supposed to stabilize the site and clean it up for residential development. But after several months of delays, the EPA dispatched its own contractors on Feb. 5 to begin a three-month stabilization effort.

If successful in getting the former Halaco property designated a federal Superfund site, the project would be eligible for additional funds for study and cleanup, Guria said. The cost of the emergency cleanup now underway will be billed to the property owners, he said.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), whose district includes Oxnard, lauded the agency's efforts, but warned that proposed Bush administration budget cuts may not provide adequate funding for Superfund sites.

Capps said in a statement that a House committee on which she sits would take testimony today from a top EPA official. "I will ask him what assurances he can give me and the Oxnard community that the Halaco site is going to be cleaned up any time soon given this lack of funding," she said.

But Guria, who led reporters on a tour of the Ormond Beach site Wednesday, suggested the long-term solution at Ormond Beach may not include hauling off the contaminants, as some environmental advocates have proposed.

"It's so large, it will be cost-prohibitive to move it," he said. "It's a very large pile of material. It may make more sense to look at how we can leave it in place once we make sure it no longer continues to pose a threat."

The EPA will receive comments on its plan to add the former Halaco property to the Superfund list during the next 60 days. To review the plan or make comments, go to www.regulations.gov.

greg.griggs@latimes.com

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