Environment & Science

Carson Carousel residents complain to water regulators about contamination cleanup efforts

Homeowners brought a guinea pig for each residence. Almost 300 houses sit on top of what was once a 50-acre tank farm.
Homeowners brought a guinea pig for each residence. Almost 300 houses sit on top of what was once a 50-acre tank farm.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
Homeowners brought a guinea pig for each residence. Almost 300 houses sit on top of what was once a 50-acre tank farm.
People who live in the Carousel neighborhood of Carson flooded the public comment opportunity at the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board, and brought guinea pigs to call attention to cleanup under their houses.
Amanda Crumley

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People who live in the city of Carson’s Carousel neighborhood flooded a meeting of regional water quality control regulators to complain about contamination cleanup efforts under their houses.

Shell Oil owned property in what is now the city of Carson from the 1920s until the mid-1960s, storing 3.5 million barrels of oil on a 50-acre site. Its in-ground storage containers weren’t lined; now almost 300 homes sit on that site.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup order to Shell some years ago. But residents aren’t satisfied with the speed with which the company and regulators are deciding what to clean up, and where, and how.

Three hundred homes sit on what was once property owned by Shell Oil, in the city of Carson. For decades, Shell stored three and a half million barrels of oil in unlined tanks. When the company left in the mid-60s, the county required only that it cover up the old tank farm. The Carousel neighborhood was built on the site. Testing in the past decade found cancer-causing and toxic chemicals under those homes in soil, soil vapor, and in groundwater.

The LA Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Shell to clean the site up last year. But the cleanup is moving too slowly for Barbara Post. During the regular public comment opportunity at the water board meeting, Post spoke up on behalf of the Carson Homeowners Association.

"We are so tired of being the guinea pigs for Shell and the water board," Post said. She turned out a white plastic trash bag, the kind in your kitchen. It was filled with plush toys. "These are from my neighbors that could not attend. Some have little tags on them, some have notes. These are guinea pigs," she said, and so are we.
Post asked for faster action. Some neighbors want Shell to buy them out. Others want temporary relocation during testing and cleanup stages. Carson residents were emotional about the economic and health costs they’ve paid…angry, like Dominick Piazza, or tearful, like Artesia Ortega.

"It seems like all you guys do is give extensions after extensions to polluters," Piazza said. "When are you guys going to make the polluters pay and side with the people of California instead of the damn polluters. That’s what you need to do. It’s like it’s our fault." 

Ortega's voice quavered as she said she lived in the neighborhood. "I had 132 tumors. I moved to the Carousel because I wanted to raise a family. I can’t have children because I no longer have ovaries because I had ovarian cancer. This sucks."

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.

But the agency may have already exhausted its enforcement powers. The regional water board’s chief deputy executive officer, Deb Smith, said that state laws permit regulators to slap Shell with an order to clean up the site to water quality standards, but limit the detail of that order. "We don’t have the authority to specify the manner of compliance," Smith said. "Which is you know some of the requests you’re hearing today."

The board itself took no vote; Carson’s cleanup issues weren’t on the agenda. But board members directed their staff to meet in the coming weeks with homeowners, their lawyers, Shell and other agencies. Several board members, including Fran Diamond, said they would get answers and possibly new solutions for the Carousel neighborhood.

"Even if it’s not within the authority of our water board to help move you," Diamond said. "I think it is part of our obligation and responsibility to find out who can do that."
For today, Carson residents found that good enough. They clapped for Diamond not quite as loudly as they did for their neighbors.