Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Superfund site of the week: Waste Disposal Inc. in Santa Fe Springs, from oil mecca to brownfield

California's oil boom gave birth to this week's Superfund site. While Santa Fe Springs' Waste Disposal Incorporated is garden variety, its history shows we're still learning about how to fix our messes (and explain them to the neighbors).

The property's not big; 38 acres on the east side of Santa Fe Springs. But in the early 1920's, demand for the Waste Disposal company's was big in the area. Oil boomed then, replacing groves of trees with forests of oil derricks. By 1929, Santa Fe Springs oil field was the state's largest producer of petroleum products. Producing oil created waste byproducts; site operators built a sunken concrete reservoir six hundred feet across and 25 feet deep to hold 42 million gallons of oil mud, crud and other nastiness. 

Under permit from L.A. county, property owners dumped drilling muds, steel mill slag, mud cake from oil field sumps, and acetylene sludge in the pool. EPA investigations later revealed  organic wastes, oil refinery wastes, solvents and petroleum-related chemicals dumped in there without permission. WDI covered the whole mess with 5 to 10 feet of dirt, and sold off small parcels to other businesses in the late sixties. 

In 1989, initial soil testing found health hazards in arsenic, benzene, vinyl chloride, PCBs, and seven pesticides. Off those results, by the mid-nineties, when the Clinton-era EPA was trying to make Superfund cleanups a priority, regulators were 90 percent done with a cleanup plan when new information led to more site testing. EPA learned toxic waste got dumped outside the reservoir, too, in several spots near the edge of the property. The deeper investigation forced regulators to shake out cleanup costs from more businesses. (Eventually, 16 companies paid half the cleanup costs.)

In Santa Fe Springs, the site's immediate neighbors knew what was going on, and offered a lot of input. St Paul High School asked that the EPA make a high fence to separate the WDI property from the school's athletic fields (they got that; they also asked for compensation for lost property value, which the EPA turned down). But in south Whittier residents said the word hadn't gotten out. They formed the Protect Our Neighborhood Committee, and that group got EPA to give them 50-thousand dollars to pay for a technical advisor, an unusual step, hiring for the community to hire someone to check their work. 

EPA's Rusty Harris-Bishop worked on the site, and he says now the anger from Whittier and other residents gave light to weaknesses in how EPA talked to the community about the pollution. "We found out didn't reach anybody," Harris-Bishop told me by phone. "We didn't get out message across, and we had to do some more." 
Community skepticism made at least one aspect of EPA's job, communicating health risks, harder. Environmental officials had to explain health risks weren't immediate. At the same time, they had to tell companies, courts and lawyers that cleanup was urgent, even as the investigation and remedy-making dragged on.

WIth a final decision about the harm and the remedy in 2002, EPA counts this one as a success. They placed a multilayer cap over the waste, a filtration and monitoring system at the surface, and in a first 5-year report they conclude that the remedy is safeguarding human and ecological health.

Santa Fe Springs is pretty poor (by measure of per-capita income), and mostly Latino now. The city's changed a lot from the wildcat-speculator-oil baron mecca it was 90 years ago. In recent years, city leaders have said they want to change it some more by redeveloping the site. They've been stymied by limits on the property's safe use and by the recent economic apocalypse. A chain fence still surrounds the site. 

(Images via EPA.)