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Toxic soil lurks beneath Carson neighborhood

The discovery of methane gas and benzene has transformed a 50-acre neighborhood into an environmental case study — a reminder of Southern California’s history as a center of the oil industry.

April 27, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times

When Ron and Belinda Oglesby moved into Carson's Carousel neighborhood in 2003, they saw a solid, middle-class area where homeowners set down roots and lived for decades, where Santa Claus paraded through the streets on a firetruck and children returned to buy their own homes.

This, they told themselves, was the perfect place to raise their three kids.

Six years later, they noticed workmen drilling holes and leaving cryptic white marks on the streets.

By last summer, they had discovered what the sudden activity meant: Preliminary tests under the direction of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board had found dangerous levels of potentially explosive methane gas and benzene under the 285 homes of the Carousel tract. In some spots, tests found benzene at concentrations seldom seen, levels that could significantly increase cancer risks for residents.

The discovery has transformed a 50-acre neighborhood of palm trees and quiet streets into an environmental case study — a reminder of Southern California's history as a center of the oil industry and the problems of ground pollution that continue to dot the region.

"How can you get a good night's sleep?" Belinda Oglesby said. "I tell my husband, ‘Get me out of here,' but where are we going? Who'd buy our house? It's like a nightmare that never goes away."

Things have only seemed to get worse. In March, the water quality board told residents not to eat fruit or vegetables grown in their backyards. Shell Oil Co., which once stored millions of gallons of crude oil in giant tanks where the houses now stand, sent letters to more than 20 homeowners recommending they minimize contact with "exposed soil in your yard."

Many residents have begun anxiously wondering about their health. Oglesby worries about whether contamination caused her weak immune system, the chronic rashes her daughters have developed and the 10-year-old's memory problems. A neighbor, Rosemary Noval, has the same questions about her husband's previous bout with cancer.

Others ask about the tar-like substance that sometimes bubbles up into their lawns or through cracks in their patio.

Noval said she worries that her years of gardening have exposed her to dangerous chemicals, especially after she watched investigators pull dark, wet soil from her backyard that smelled like oil.

"The garden is where the soul feels at home," she said. "That's how I feel when I'm in the garden. Now I'm no longer happy in my garden because I know what's underneath."

"Our lives are full of uncertainty and heartache and disappointment," she said. "That's our lives now. It's been ripped from us."

The contamination in Carson was discovered by accident. Two years ago, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control was investigating the site of an old chemical plant west of the Carousel neighborhood when workers found benzene and other petroleum products in the soil and groundwater. Because the chemical plant had rarely used those products, investigators concluded they had migrated from elsewhere. The old Shell tank farm was the most likely suspect.

Starting in 1924, Shell had stored oil in what were essentially giant concrete bathtubs covered with wood. The tank farm operated in conjunction with a refinery 1 1/2 miles to the east until the mid-1960s, when the tanks were demolished and Shell sold the property. The first homes were built on the site around 1970, state records indicate.

Alison Abbott Chassin, Shell's external affairs manager, said the oil company sold the 50 acres as is, and it was the responsibility of the developer to clean up the site.

Shell officials also have said there could be causes of contamination other than the oil tanks. Gene Freed, Shell's project manager, said chemical residue at some homes could have been left behind by previous owners who enjoyed fiddling with cars, or been from pesticides or other household chemicals.

The company found no contamination in a house it tested near the spot on Neptune Avenue where benzene levels were highest, Freed said.

"It could be as simple as the gardener spilled gasoline there when filling up his lawn mower," he said. "There are all kinds of things we're finding that are not related to our operations."

Tracy Egoscue, the water board's executive officer, said no developer would be allowed to build on the Carousel tract today. Regardless of what the environmental laws were when Shell sold the land, the company now is legally responsible for cleaning it up, she added.

Shell was slow to cooperate with the investigation, Egoscue said. "Initially they were dragging their feet," she added. The agency sent the company a notice of violation in April 2009.

Most residents have joined a lawsuit against Shell and others including developer Barclay Hollander Corp., which was bought by Dole Foods, according to attorneys involved in the case. Tom Girardi, the homeowners' attorney, said Shell knew the area was polluted when it sold the property in 1966.

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