The federal law called CERCLA - the friendly term is Superfund - is supposed to create a structure for cleaning up toxic pollution, and often in its history the law and its regulators have operated with the idea that polluters should pay to clean up their messes (though not now, which is a story for a different day). But what if the polluters aren't around anymore?
Our Superfund site of the week - the former Pemaco Chemical Company - illustrates some of the more common challenges to the kinds of toxic pollution that federal law is supposed to make companies clean up. Pemaco was one of many companies that worked with chemicals in the LA basin; it started doing what it did in the 19-forties. And it stopped existing before it cleaned up its mess.
- WHERE: A 4-acre site located on Slauson in the city of Maywood. Which itself is tiny: a little over a square mile, the third smallest city in LA County.
- WHAT: The Pemaco company sold chemicals like cleaning solvents. Pemaco blended chemicals including volatile organic compounds, and had chlorinated solvents for sale. Of course, we now know some of those chemicals are nastier (to humans, or if you prefer, biologically speaking) than we thought at the time. Tetrachloroethene exposure causes dizziness, nausea, and unconsciousness, and in larger amounts, death. Vinyl chloride is toxic and flammable; it's potentially cancer-causing for people who work around it. Pemaco stored chemicals in tanks, some of which were underground. Some of those tanks leaked the chemicals into soil at the property.
- WHO: For Superfund sites, EPA officials try to identify "potentially responsible parties." Here, that's, uh, Pemaco. Except Pemaco stopped existing when the site needed cleanup. That left the federal government in charge of paying for cleanup, which was estimated at 13 million dollars. (Which is you, really. Thanks.)
- WHEN: Pemaco sold its business to LUX chemical in the late eighties. LUX shut down in 1991. That year, under LA county hazmat direction, the company was supposed to get rid of all the toxic and hazardous chemicals on the premises. That didn't happen. So in 1993, when a fire hit the facility, it took out a warehouse that had plenty in it. The fire also left behind some storage tanks and 55-gallon drums full of chemicals. By 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency put Pemaco on the Superfund list.
- WHAT THEY DID: They covered the whole thing with soil. Then they used basically high power supersucking vacuums to pull out contaminated groundwater and soil vapor - moisture that lives between soil particles. They also used a flameless thermal oxidation system - something they did for the first time in the country. Generally, that means heating the soil up in the worst contaminated areas to vaporize the pollution. It saved them the trouble of digging the whole thing up. A solar powered, carbon-based treatment system for soil vapors and ground water still runs there. And now the whole thing is a park, part of the LA River Greenway Project.
And as for the 6th W, WHY CARE: You can be an environmental disaster tourist and visit the place! Maywood has two parks in the city now: this is one of them. According to the Trust for Public Land, "Maywood is the most densely populated city west of the Mississippi, home to more than 30,000 residents in only 1.13 square miles." This site really only became a park once TPL helped the city obtain more land next to the old Pemaco site - including the former businesses W. W. Henry, Precision Arrow, Lubricating Oil and the LA Junction Railroad. KCET and the LA River site both are kind of lukewarm on the area and its walking options. They write that "there is not much in the way of nature, but there is a stark beauty in the vast concrete channel. While this walk is not recommended to introduce newcomers to the river, it’s important to become familiar with the challenges facing those who would restore the river and bring amenities to under-served areas."
Last week's Superfund SOTW: Palos Verdes Shelf.