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Residents of former Shell Oil tank farm site in Carson live amid backhoes, trenches

Soil excavation began this week at Carson’s Carousel Tract, where much of the neighborhood sits above soil drenched in petroleum from a former oil tank farm that used to inhabit the land. (Chuck Bennett/Staff Photographer)

By Sandy Mazza, Staff Writer 9 November 2012

Sharon and Bill Ogden moved into a brand-new two-bedroom home in Carson in 1968, the same year they were married.

Bill worked as a plumber for Boeing and the couple raised two children in the neatly laid-out neighborhood of 285 single-family houses called the Carousel Tract.

This week, Shell Oil contract workers used backhoes to dig up the Ogdens 20-foot-long front yard in three 10-foot deep trenches that stunk of oil when a breeze passed. Noise-dampening blankets nearly as tall as the house buffered the construction sounds on either side. The water fountain that Sharon Ogden had installed in the front yard was placed in storage.

The home happens to sit on a former Shell Oil tank farm, where extensive environmental contamination is the subject of a series of lawsuits between residents and the petroleum company. Shell was ordered to clean the soil after random testing in 2007 found high levels of petroleum byproducts underground.

The tank farm occupied the 50-acre site from 1924 to 1966, when the tanks were knocked flat while still holding waste petroleum products. The debris and pollution were covered with 10 feet of soil, and the Carousel Tract was erected the following year. The Ogdens moved in shortly after.

On Thursday, the couple picked up their mail and watched from across the street as workers filled a truck with soil from their front yard and replaced it with slurry and clean topsoil. They are staying in a motel until their yard is replaced sometime next week.

“I’m between shocked and disgusted,” Bill Ogden said. “We can’t even go in the house now. You have to have safety shoes and a hard hat.”

The Ogden home is the first of four planned pilot test areas in which Shell workers are experimenting with different digging styles to determine the best way to excavate lawns across the entire neighborhood. Once the pilot tests are finished, Shell officials will complete a work plan for the whole site and submit it to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board – the agency that ordered Shell to complete the remediation.

Shell spokesman Alan Caldwell said he does not yet know how many homes will need remediation. But the tank farm covered much of the site, and contaminants were mixed in with clean soil when grading was done for the housing development.

“You could have one method to address a certain issue at one location and one method to address a different issue somewhere else,” Caldwell said. “You won’t know until we finish all the pilot tests and all the testing. That will give you an overview of where the areas of concern are.”

Linda Keith, the Ogden family’s next-door neighbor, said she doesn’t mind the construction noise as much as the smell and the emotional impact.

“It’s upsetting to see our neighbor’s yard all torn up,” said Keith, who has lived in her home for 31 years. “I’m ready to leave.”

Residents can’t sell their homes because the value has dropped significantly since contamination was discovered. Many of them fear they have developed health problems ranging from minor headaches to cancerous tumors. They are represented by Los Angeles law firm Girardi & Keese, noted for its connection to environmental activist Erin Brockovich, whose fight against PG&E was dramatized in a 2000 feature film.

Residents are seeking financial settlements to compensate them for their homes, medical costs and emotional distress. State scientists appointed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board have determined that the contamination does not pose an immediate or serious health risk to residents. But attorneys argue that the community is beset by disease and sickness because of the pollution.

Michael Perez, 20, grew up in the neighborhood and said he is concerned about his health, and hopes his front yard isn’t torn up one day.

“I worry about it because I’ve been living here all my life,” Perez said. “We’ve grown things in our yard and eaten it. They say this whole neighborhood is contaminated, so are they going to have to (dig up yards) at every house? I hope not.”

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