Carousel residents, water board going around on Carson cleanup plans

Carousel neighborhood signs picture dead carousel horses and ask, 'Who's Next?'
Carousel neighborhood signs picture dead carousel horses and ask, 'Who's Next?' Molly Peterson/KPCC

Even though their houses sit on a former Shell Oil tank farm, a plan to clean up the toxic soil underneath doesn't sit well with dozens of homeowners in the city of Carson. They made that clear to regional water regulators in a recent meeting.

In Carson's Carousel neighborhood 285 homes sit on top of crude oil reservoirs that closed down in the late 1960s.

Petroleum contamination near where people live is less common than cleanups near commercial or industrial sites. The regional water quality control board is the lead agency for a site on which state and local agencies share jurisdiction. The water board's executive officer, Sam Unger, says the cleanup process doesn't get more complicated than this.

"To clean a site like this in consideration of the residences' needs and desires, and the environmental impact of actually conducting the remediation to mitigate those factors is very difficult and very complex," he says.

That explanation doesn't sit well with angry people like Barbara Post, who may face a two- to 10-year cleanup under her house in Carousel.

"There ain't no way," she says. "If you honestly think that I'm going to put up with that you're out of your fricking mind."

Post and her neighbors carried signs that pictured dead carousel horses, in Shell Oil's trademark yellow and red, reading, "Who's Next?" Young Latino families and older white couples sat side-by-side in Carson's community center, lips pressed together, heads shaking "no," arms crossed on their chests.

"Frankly, people have just lost trust and faith with the regulator climbing in bed with the polluter," says Bob Bocock, an environmental investigator for a law firm that represents hundreds of Carson homeowners.

They've sued Shell Oil, demanding compensation for their homes. Bocock says he can see that regulators are trying to explain their actions.

"I think they're doing a better job than in a lot of places, but frankly, they're trying to break the information down too much and it has a tendency to cause confusion," says Bocock.

He points to the data: nearly a year's worth of soil, soil vapor, and groundwater testing that indicates a heightened risk of cancer in petroleum-tainted soil 10 feet deep under the overwhelming majority of houses. Some of those houses face additional risks from benzene exposure.

Gene Freed, of Shell Oil, talks about LA's historic oil reservoir practices.

Numbers like that lead Carousel neighbors like Mike Mitoma to question whether the pollution stops at the neighborhood's edge.

"You're talking about Carousel and you're trying to tell me that all of a sudden the contamination stops at your fence? I don't think so," he says. "And they did testing on my street and found benzene and methane. So it's really extremely irritating."

The regional water board's Sam Unger insists to Mitoma and other homeowners that his agency is on their side. He adds that it's doing everything in its power to move the cleanup along and make it complete.

Unger also pointed out that regional water regulators are making time for more public comment because they're aware that residential contamination carries greater human health risks.

"We're putting the final touches and legal review on it and we'll have it issued in three weeks," Unger says.

One big question remains unresolved. Unger's agency has fingered Shell Oil as the potentially responsible party. Shell has helped to investigate the contamination, and says it's committed to the neighborhood's well being. Still, company officials still have not said whether Shell will accept all the responsibility - and pay all the costs - for cleaning up the neighborhood.

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