Pacific Swell | 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.

But wait, there's more! In the late fifties, Hintz Development Corp. bought the property to put tract homes on it. Excavators revealed what the EPA's Superfund site for Ralph Gray calls a "tar sump" - so, instead of cleaning it up, they put the goo into big "redisposal trenches" - need I mention they were unlined? 

The black tarry goo wasn't happy with its home. In the summertime, it would rise from the deep, giving residents headaches, nausea, severe asthma, and other ailments. "The sludge retained a semi-solid form at the ground surface, but became more fluid in hot weather," the EPA writes. The hazardous waste was moving, you see, and people would run into it as they built swimming pools and added on to their houses. Complaints rained down on the city starting in the seventies. 

In 1991 and 1992, federal officials proposed the former Ralph Gray Trucking site for the National Priorities List.

Basically, the federal government dug the sludge up. 

The complicated part of this was moving families out from their homes - temporarily. They went to houses, rented at the time for up to $1800 a month. To the Marriott Residence Inn, where the LA Times reported that free beer, wine, and food flowed in the evenings in the lobby, which probably made the extended stay hotel like a kind of Westminster clubhouse. And to their families elsewhere. 

All that relocating probably cost the government a million dollars, federal officials estimated at the time. "It's fine to stay in a hotel for a few days," the EPA's project manager told the LA Times as the cleanup started. But - and I find this amazing for some reason - the guy also implied that the government and the Superfund law had a duty to do right by the residents. "Leaving your home for six months can be a very emotionally uprooting experience. We wanted to ease the trauma that some families experience."

As this comment reveals, Superfund was in a different place during the Clinton administration. President Bill had pledged to clean up two-thirds of the most serious sites in the country by 2001. Midterms and Monica prevented a lot of that work getting done, as the president lost his juice and his friendly Congress. But on this project, the Environmental Protection Agency spent $20 million, including $1 million to rehouse displaced Winchesterians for a while. 

The first homeowner moved back after cleanup 16 years ago this month.

Federal officials finished restoration work in the site in 1997, and tested the soil for 7 more years. Satisfied with their work, they got the site taken off the National Priorities List - and though it's still and always a Superfund site, it's a success story, an example of how the law could work if it did. 

Two things made this site simple - relatively speaking - compared to others in southern California. One was that nobody was trying to get companies that don't exist anymore to pay for anything. Ralph Gray trucking and the developers have oozed back into the primordial goo of creation, so to speak. The other is that while groundwater was sort of implicated at first, extensive testing showed that the chemicals found weren't from Ralph Gray, and that the water found in the contaminated zone was most likely related to leaky house pipes and swimming pools. So it was pretty much a matter of picking up the mess that the trucking company left behind, and the developers moved.