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Work begins on massive cleanup of contaminated Carousel tract yards in Carson

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By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze: 13 May 2016

They had been waiting for this day for eight years. But it was still wrenching for the Ancheta family when it finally came this week.

Their house in Carson’s infamous Carousel tract was the first of hundreds slated for cleanup of tons of soil contaminated with hazardous waste from old oil storage tanks. Beginning a five-year clean-up process across the 50-acre community, workers ripped out carefully manicured plants and lawns and dug up trees.

Teresa Ancheta winced at the sight of her trees being uprooted in front of the home where she’s lived for 26 years.

“I’m very, very sad today seeing the trees come down,” Ancheta said. “They throw away the whole tree and then they will remove everything down to 7 feet. We’ll see what happens. I have three sons and grandchildren. We want to be healthy.”

• VIDEO: A look at the neighborhood, and a chat with Teresa Ancheta

Like all families in the neighborhood of 285 homes, the Anchetas were told nearly a decade ago that the soil beneath and around their homes was full of toxic petroleum waste. They were warned not to plant vegetables or let their children and pets dig in the yards off Lomita Boulevard and Neptune Avenue, and then — counter-intuitively — assured their health wasn’t in danger from the petroleum hydrocarbons. Many residents suspect the pollution has triggered their medical problems and those of their pets, including asthma, irregular heartbeats, blood disorders and cancerous tumors.

The Ancheta home is in the first cluster of eight houses on one side of 249th Street to be blocked off by a sound wall designed to muffle the construction noise and deflect petroleum odors while remediation takes place.

Work at each cluster will take about three months as contaminated soil is replaced with new dirt and a soil-vapor extraction system is installed to safely remove toxic gases because only a fraction of the roughly 14 million pounds of underground waste oil will be removed across the neighborhood.

Contaminated groundwater plumes that carry future drinking water supplies also will be remediated during the cleanup, which should take five to six years.

• PHOTOS: More views of the cleanup efforts at the Carousel tract

Across the street from the Anchetas, neighbors watched the construction with patient skepticism.

“It’s a mess,” said a neighbor who didn’t want to give her name because of an ongoing lawsuit against Shell Oil. “It’s an inconvenience. I have family in from out of town but there’s nowhere to park. In the evening, you get a scent. When my grandmother left, she said: ‘What’s that smell?’ ”

The pollution was left behind when Shell abandoned its tank farm on the property before the Carousel development was built in the 1960s. Since it was discovered eight years ago, teams of investigators have scoured the community doing tests of soil, soil vapors and air inside and under homes to determine whether toxicity levels threatened health.

About 1,400 current and former residents sued Shell for damages, and the Carson City Council joined the suit in 2013 in an effort to fast-track the cleanup and lawsuit settlement.

The yearslong process spurred residents to become environmental advocates in the city, calling for greater regulations on industrial operations. In 2013, activist Erin Brockovich met with city officials and residents to discuss environmental injustices. A 2000 film dramatized Brockovich’s successful suit against PG&E in the community of Hinkley over groundwater contamination.

Residents have since successfully lobbied the city for more restrictive laws on oil companies and greater oversight of environmental issues in general. The city was a dumping ground for Los Angeles County hazardous waste before it installed its own government in 1968. Today, it could soon be home to the West Coast’s largest oil refinery, if Tesoro’s planned merger of its Carson and Wilmington plants is completed.

City officials and Carousel tract residents have pleaded with Shell to buy them out of their houses so they wouldn’t have to suffer through years of construction and health threats, but the company didn’t agree.

In late 2014, Shell offered to settle disputes over health and emotional damages with residents for $90 million. Residents accepted the offer but haven’t yet received any money because the tract’s developer blocked the disbursement. Dole Food Co., which now owns the company that developed Carousel tract, Barclay Hollander Corp., contests determinations by Shell and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board that they are responsible for the mess because they agreed to remove the hydrocarbons before building homes, but instead simply covered the pollution with a few feet of clean soil.

Girardi & Keese, the Los Angeles law firm representing residents, is working on a settlement with Dole that would allow Shell to release the $90 million payment to residents, said attorney Robert Finnerty.

“Once the money is dispersed through the Shell settlement, we still have our issue with Dole,” Finnerty said. “We and the water board and the residents are completely frustrated by the delay caused by (Dole). We certainly hope to be able to resolve the case in its entirety. (It’s being held up by) a legal issue that only the court can control. Shell is interested in getting this behind them and finishing the remediation.”

Despite the ongoing court battles, the Regional Water Quality Control Board gave the go-ahead to begin cleaning the 50-acre community in August 2015. Shell anticipates spending about $200 million on the remediation.

A Carousel tract resident who lives nearby in Cluster 17, which will be cleaned in three or four years, echoed what many residents have said this week throughout the process.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said the woman, who didn’t give her name because of the lawsuit. “Why would they spend all that money to clean up the soil? The toxins are going to end up airborne anyway. I don’t get why they don’t just buy us out completely.

“I have three sisters that also live in the tract. I just think it’s ridiculous that this is going to take years, and I just can’t get over that they never settled to buy us all out. Are they waiting for us to pass?”


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