Environment & Science

Former Shell Oil site: Tests for toxic contamination under homes in Carson (MAP)

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People living in the city of Carson have seen a lot of activity on Neptune Avenue this week. Shell Oil company has brought in construction equipment to the residential street to test ways to clean up oil and chemical contamination under Carson’s Carousel neighborhood.

Until the mid-1960s, Shell stored more than three million gallons of oil in three huge open pits on a field in Carson. Then, Shell covered them up and sold the land to a developer, who built 285 homes on the old industrial site. Oil and cancer-causing chemicals ooze in the soil under those homes.

Shell spokesman Alan Caldwell said this week’s tests are part of a year-long investigation into how best to protect people from those substances.

“Once that’s completed we’ll take all the tests that we’ve done, and we’ll develop that into a pilot test report,” Caldwell said. “And then all of that will be given to the water board for their review and recommendations.”

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Shell to clean up the pollution last year after an investigation. Just these early tests for cleanup around houses will cost Shell about $1 million. The actual cleanup will cost millions more.

LA regional water board chair Maria Mehranian said it’s a complex problem.

“The steps that we’re taking need to be methodical, need to be scientific,” she said. “And we’re going to have to scientifically prove some of this evidence. That the extent of the evidence, the steps of the cleanup, all that, should be defined.”

Once the tests are completed, Shell will pay for an independent panel of experts to evaluate the various cleanup options. But the people who live in the Carousel neighborhood criticize the speed and scope of the work so far.

Tom Girardi is their lawyer.

“The benzene levels are 100,000 times that permitted,” Girardi said. “These were unlined tanks. They know exactly what’s there, and they know how far down it is. There’s no question about it.”

The testing underway this week examines options for digging up soil between 2 and 10 feet deep under a plan approved by regional water regulators.

Girardi said toxic chemicals deeper underground may yet pose a health threat.

“The contamination goes down we know at least 24 feet,” he said. “There is no way in the world this mess could ever be cleaned up except by taking all the houses down, moving contaminated soil, that’s the only way it’s going to be cleaned up.”

So far, regulators haven’t bought that argument, but they haven’t completely ruled it out, either. The tests will go a long way towards resolving that question.

Shell will have a say in how the cleanup is ultimately carried out. Company spokesman Alan Caldwell said Shell takes its responsibility seriously.

“We want to minimize impact to the community, we want to do a good job and get it right, and address any issues we’re responsible for and continue to move forward as best as possible,” Caldwell said.

The community, the oil company, and water regulators all agree on one thing:  It is rare to find that hundreds of homes were built over an old industrial site with this level of toxic contamination.

That may be changing, said Mehranian.

“We are finding other sites like that now,” she said. “Thirty percent of all the oil produced in California is produced in the Los Angeles region. And this is an issue we are going to face over and over again.”

Shell expects to finish the testing in the Carousel neighborhood by early next year. Even under the best of circumstances, the cleanup will likely take years. Carson residents say that makes them feel like they’re going round and round instead of making progress.