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Environment & Science

Water board to bring in experts to watch Carson neighborhood's cleanup

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

In July, state water regulators made an impromptu promise to residents of the Carson Carousel neighborhood, which sits on a historic petroleum tank farm, that they would do as much as they could to clean up their ‘hood. The regulators have now taken a first step.

The water board will convene an “expert panel” to review how the cleanup is going. Its chair is  Dr. Arturo Keller, from UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School

“The cleanup of the Carousel neighborhood is a priority of our regional board,” said Maria Mehranian, Chair of the Los Angeles Water Board.  “With the continuous efforts by the Regional Board, the responsible party, Shell Oil, will take responsibility for cleanup of the site and funding the expert panel.  We believe this panel of experts will assist our board in staying the course and ensuring an effective clean up that fully protects the health of Carousel residents.”

I was at the July hearing at the Metropolitan Water District when more than a hundred Carson residents showed up with stuffed guinea pigs; a sign, they said, that they were tired of being, well, guinea pigs. 

Regulators appeared stunned after 2 hours of unscheduled comment. Water board member Mary Ann Lutz offered apologies to Carson homeowners. "I don’t think we all understood the depth of the problem until today," she said.

By convening the expert panel, the agency may have exhausted its enforcement powers. The regional water board’s chief deputy executive officer, Deb Smith, said that state law permits regulators to slap Shell with an order to clean up the site to water quality standards, but "we don’t have the authority to specify the manner of compliance."

That promped Carson homeowners, who are primarily represented by Girardi & Keese, to seek more political input and lay on more public pressure.

Three hundred homes sit on old Shell property in Carson, where the company used to store millions of barrels of oil in unlined tanks. Testing in the past decade found cancer-causing and toxic chemicals under those homes in soil, soil vapor, and in groundwater. Shell is responsible for the site, and has generally paid for studies and efforts toward cleanup so far, though it has disputed specifics about the extent and nature of the cleanup.

The company’s Gene Freed told me over a year and a half ago that 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."