Worries about chemicals, and the tests for them, in Carson

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Molly Peterson/KPCC

Robert Bowcock, an environmental investigator retained by the law firm Girardi & Reese, told Carson community residents not to sign access agreements allowing consultants paid for by Shell Oil into their homes for testing.

Some people in Carson say they're alarmed about chemicals left behind after Shell Oil shut down an oil reservoir in their neighborhood. KPCC's Molly Peterson says the same people are skeptical about chemical testing on their property.

It's been more than a year since the Regional Water Quality Control Board started to investigate chemical pollution near where a concrete-lined reservoir once held millions of gallons of crude oil. That's too long for some people who live in Carson's Carousel neighborhood. Hundreds of them filled a ballroom in the city's community center. They want more answers.

They asked whether the school has been contacted, and who the water board talked to. Those with homes just outside the primary perimeter asked whether they should be concerned. Mostly, they grew restless, as they directed questions to the water board that the water board said Shell Oil was in a better position to answer.

Watch Carson homeowner Patricia Martinez ask public officials about health concerns, and the risk of leukemia, from living in the Carousel neighborhood:

Water board senior environmental planner Stephen Cain tried to explain to a sometimes hostile crowd that his agency has moved fast to establish what chemical residues might pose a threat to health. "We are a state agency... [with] a very clear simple mission," he said. "That's to protect human health and the environment."

A water board scientist told the audience that samples taken on city streets found elevated levels of methane gas in the soil. Methane can explode or cause fires. Investigators also found benzene, a chemical that can cause cancer with long-term exposure. Both are associated with petroleum production.

Those results unsettled Carson residents like Barbara Post who have lived over the site for three or four decades. "Everything was buried and then covered up. That stuff has to come out of the ground," she said, pointing a finger at Cain. She lobbied water officials to take action fast. "You guys better do something before somebody else dies and gets sick in that tract." Post's remarks met huge applause.

Post also lobbied her neighbors to say no to testing. She was joined in that effort by environmental investigator Robert Bowcock, retained by Girardi and Keese, a firm that seeks to represent Carson homeowners in a possible legal action. Post, Bowcock, and more than a dozen residents all said they don't trust the testing procedures, because they don't trust Shell, which pays for the tests as required by California law.

Shell's project manager for the site, Gene Freed, points out all samples go a state certified laboratory. "Shell doesn't direct the laboratory; Shell doesn't review the results."

He says Shell's consultants have tested about 20 percent of the homes in Carousel for methane. They’ve done more involved testing at about 30 other houses. But Shell project manager Freed says that testing for benzene, the chemical that can raise the risk of cancer, is more complicated. "We really need to get more data so we can take a look at the picture and see what's going on."

Freed said the L.A. Basin had three things the oil company thrived on in its heyday. "One, it had oil wells. Two, it had open property. And three, it had the people that needed the gasoline and diesel. So everything was there for an ongoing business. And we figured out 70 years later it would have been nice to do something different."

Watch Shell's technical lead on the former Kast property, Gene Freed, talk about historic approaches to oil production and refining in California:

Shell representatives sat at a table outside the meeting with blank forms for homeowners to sign so company-paid consultants could enter their homes. Those forms were stacked high as the meeting broke up.

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