Southern California environment news and trends

Superfund site of the Week: Westminster's Ralph Gray Trucking, a (rare) success story

This week, in an exciting and daring change of pace, we're going to take a look at a site where Superfund has worked. In Orange County, in the city of Westminster, federal environmental officials placed the former Ralph Gray Trucking Facility on the national priorities list, and cleaned it up in what was then record time. It's our Superfund Site of the Week.

If you hear the phrase "open unlined pits," be afraid. Be very afraid. Ralph Gray was a trucking company in Long Beach. It owned a field in what's now Westminster, near Sowell Avenue and Golden West Street. And sometime in the thirties, the company dumped about "45,000 cubic yards of petroleum products of unknown origin" into those pits. 

The federal register notice for the site points out that Westminster officials told the trucking company to get lost, and the Judicial Court of Huntington Beach Township convicted the owner in 1936 for maintaining a public nuisance at the site. On the other hand, he didn't have to move it.

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Superfund site of the week: 3 reasons CERCLA cleanups matter to California

Missing in action last week was our regular Superfund Site of the Week feature. That's because I was missing in action, enjoying a rustic beach-house vacation that involved no Internet. So this week Pacific Swell decided to reset what Superfund is all about. I'm back explaining what it is and giving you three reasons to care in California. 

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, the state with the greatest number of sites under federal Environmental Protection Agency supervision is…New Jersey. 112 sites. (I just haven't got the heart for the obvious joke, maybe because I'm a huge fan of Wiliam Carlos Williams, who proves that the Garden state incubates beauty, too.) But don't worry, Californians! We're third in hazardous wastes. (What up, steel industry!) One behind Pennsylvania, California has 94 Superfund sites to its credit. Sheer volume isn't your big reason to pay attention, though. 

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Superfund Site of the Week: Rialto's B.F. Goodrich

It was in 1997 that Rialto first figured out that a plume of perchlorate was contaminating groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency named it the B.F. Goodrich site after the Goodrich Corporation, and made it a Superfund site in 2009. Rialto's B.F. Goodrich is our Superfund site of the week. 

  • WHERE A hundred and sixty acres of Rialto, a city in Western San Bernardino county, is the Superfund site. The contamination has entered water and is in a plume, moving, underground, that's affecting Rialto, Colton and Fontana. Groundwater - water underground - rests in the space between rocks, sediment, and sand. Think of marbles in a glass jar; you can pour water between the marbles, more than you might think. 
  • WHAT The EPA's worried about perchlorate and TCE: trichlorylethylate. Both chemical compounds are found in rocket propellant. TCE's a classic: exposure cause "headache, nausea, dizziness, clumsiness, drowsiness, and other effects like those of being drunk." Damage to the central nervous system; known to cause cancer in animals; may cause cancer in people. California's got enough of a problem with perchlorate in drinking water that the state made a set of policy goals about it: essentially, they represent what California wants to get to based on the best scientific data available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, perc exposure hazards are larger for pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, and those with thyroid disorders. Mostly, they're worried about water contamination - that's explained in slightly more detail below. But soil and soil vapor contamination is a problem too. Not just soil, but soil gas or vapors as well, trapped in tiny spaces settled among soil particles. 
  • WHY The why is contained in the what, in this case. So this isn't exactly why, but local communities pressed the EPA for a while to get Goodrich on the national priorities list. They're generally supportive of the designation, because it means federal money for cleanup…at some point…probably…and efforts to get money out of the companies that left the chemicals there. Public awareness - and local political awareness about the hazards of perc-contaminated drinking water has been on the rise for several years. But with our busted up state budget and general lack of funding at the county level for major cleanups like this, San Bernardino communities say they need help. The rule of thumb for anything Superfund related is that it's mindbendingly expensive to undo what's been done. Getting chemicals out of drinking water is no exception. It's worth pointing out that perchlorate is a big driver of Superfund designations in southern California; there are other sites that are perc-related. And smaller pockets of contamination - perhaps discovered, but without a responsible party anywhere in the picture - exist too. 
  • WHEN The site was part of federal property during World War II - "an inspection, consolidation, and storage facility for rail cars transporting ordnance to the Port of Los Angeles." Bombs and ammo en route to Pacific battles was gathered up there. After the war, defense contractors used the property to build explosives, rockets, and fireworks. B.F. Goodrich, who the site's named for, used the Rialto location from 1957-1962. So pretty continuously, the EPA argues, from the mid-forties until pretty recently, bombs, ammo, and other explosives made on site brought these chemicals into contact with the landscape. 
  • WHO Goodrich is one of several parties named here.  Also implicated are: Emhart Industries (on behalf of West Coast Loading Corporation), Pyro Spectaculars Inc. (PSI), Ken Thompson Inc. (current property owner), Chung Ming Wong (current property owner), Pyrotronics, Inc. (“Pyrotronics”) and Harry HescoxAnd it's worth noting that the company disputes its responsibility. Goodrich lawyers say there's no evidence the company used TCE when it was on site. they dispute EPA's designation that it's a potentially responsible party. That's not uncommon. When that happens, the federal government will usually seek to enforce their designation: basically, take the companies to court, and get a judge to do that. But that's a last resort. Court time don't come cheap. 
  • HOW…(ARE THEY GONNA CLEAN IT UP, and HOW MUCH WILL IT COST). THe solution EPA's talking about - pumps and treatment systems - would cost up to $18 million to start, a few million every year. In theory, the EPA systems would clean up the contaminated water, and send it to local utilities to sell as drinking-grade water. But utilities might not want it. In which case, the EPA would send the water to an underground aquifer. 

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Superfund site of the Week: Maywood's Pemaco Chemical Company, now a city park

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.

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Superfund site of the Week: Palos Verdes Shelf

We're launching a regular feature I'm pretty jazzed about: each week we're going to profile a Superfund site in California. 

Superfund is a more fun way to refer to CERCLA - the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980. In that law, the United States recognized that we have places where we've dumped toxic wastes. And we recognized that it's worth designating them as such, putting them under federal Environmental Protection Agency supervision, and cleaning them up. 

That last part is where it gets tricky. Superfund sites sometimes are superBIG. Or superTOXIC. Or superCOMPLEX…you see where I'm going. If you make a law in 1980, for example, and a company that dumped toxic materials someplace did it during World War II and promptly went out of business, it's hard to get anyone to pay for it. 

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