Michigan Job Taught Lessons for McColl : 1980 Chemical Cleanup by Canonie Similar to Fullerton Project

Times Staff Writer

Although Canonie Engineers has never cleaned up a hazardous waste site quite like the McColl dump, company officials say that experience gleaned from past jobs will prepare them for the Fullerton excavation.

Canonie will dig up 200,000 tons of smelly refinery acid waste and contaminated soil that lie beneath a vacant field and stretch of golf course in an upper-middle-class residential neighborhood.

In its buried state, the waste emits a persistent sickening smell. But while digging up the sludge will eliminate the source of the problem, the excavation itself could expose the nearby residents to potent belches of the sulfur dioxide-laden odor, unless precautions are taken.

"There will be surprises," said Canonie Engineers' president, Richard Brissette.

"We do know that there are a few gas pockets, and if you hit one of those or several that are connected, the instantaneous release of gas can be enormous. You've got to be prepared to handle that sort of thing."

Some of the most striking similarities to the McColl job can be found in Canonie's 1980 cleanup of the Hooker Chemical Co. plant at Montague, Mich., even though the chemicals there were more "classically toxic," in the words of one Canonie officer.

Both Hooker and McColl involve the excavation and relocation of waste. At the Montague site, the chemical C-56 and other chemicals were moved from various areas of the 800-acre plant site into a vault constructed by Canonie. For the McColl project, acidic sludge will have to be trucked 200 miles from Fullerton to Casmalia, in northern Santa Barbara County.

But what the relocation of the Hooker waste lacked in distance, it made up for in complexity.

The C-56 was "highly volatile" and vaporized quickly as temperatures rose, said a Michigan Department of Natural Resouces geologist. Michigan officials decreed that no excavation could occur if temperatures rose above 50 degrees.

Working through the winter, Canonie even had to deal with the contamination of snow as it fell atop the chemical-soaked area, Montgomery said. Workers had to be careful that trucks traveling through contaminated snow did not cross the paths of trucks on "clean," uncontaminated roads on the site, she said.

Some areas were so severely--and unexpectedly--contaminated that a blue haze of chemical vapors formed when the ground was broken, and the hole had to be covered up, Montgomery said.

Throughout the cleanup, there was concern that the fumes not reach the nearby residents of Montague, a resort town perched on White Lake, known for its boating and fishing, just inland from Lake Michigan.

Gerard Heyt, a district supervisor who monitored quality during the Hooker cleanup, said that on several occasions emissions exceeded the limits and the work had be be stopped. With McColl, there also is a threat that chemical fumes will waft into surrounding residential neighborhoods.

To control the fumes in Fullerton, Canonie workers plan to spray the waste with new-technology foams that will form a seal to prevent odors from escaping, and then to suction off any straying smells with a special air vacuum machine.

In addition, much of the excavation will be performed under a tent-like enclosure, so that if the foams and vacuum machine together do not control the fumes, there will be one more barrier between the exposed waste and the neighborhood.

Those measures, combined with "good, old-fashioned geotechnical" engineering--such as simply maintaining stable slopes of dirt and waste--should reduce problems, said Brissette. But Canonie officials know that, hand in hand with the McColl cleanup plan, they must develop the trust and understanding of the community. As they did in Montague, they plan to work with area residents and leaders to listen and teach.

In Montague, the company eased the pain by meeting with the town officials. The Hooker job involved trucking in massive amounts of clay from nearby pits for the construction of the vault. Brissette recalled that there was some concern about the possibility of clay trucks colliding with school buses stopping on the streets to load and unload students. Brissette said Canonie officials, who had subcontracted the clay hauling to a local trucking firm, met with the school authorities to discuss the potential problem.

Arland Cederquist, transportation director for Montague Area Public Schools, said he was impressed by Canonie's concern.

"We didn't re-route the buses, but they did know our exact (busing) hours, and they were a lot more careful during that time," Cederquist said. There was never a collision between bus and truck, he said.

For the McColl project, Canonie officials began establishing themselves in Fullerton last summer, not long after winning the contract. So far, the company's relationship with the community has been amicable.

At a neighborhood meeting in December, Canonie officials greeted some of the residents by first name, expressed concern about the health of their children and then outlined a step-by-step plan of the cleanup.

Canonie showed slides picturing its equipment, the trucks that will be used and the "moon suits" workers will wear. The slide show received nearly universal approval. When the meeting broke up, the Canonie representatives shook hands with the residents, who thanked the the company officials for coming.

"It is imperative that the community know what is going to be done and why it's going to be done and how it's going to be done," said Phillip E. Antommaria, Canonie executive vice president.

There is more than good-heartedness involved. If there are too many complaints about smells from the dump during the cleanup, the state has the authority to order the work stopped until better air conditions prevail.

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