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Delays Raising Cost of McColl Waste Cleanup

Times Staff Writer

Joel Moskowitz, head of the California Department of Health Services’ toxics division, compares the World War II petroleum waste buried at the abandoned McColl dump in Fullerton to the Flying Dutchman, the mythical ship in the 19th-Century poem by John Boyle O’Reilly that wanders the sea for centuries in search of a friendly port.

State and federal health officials have been trying for the past year to dig up and dispose of the hazardous material at the McColl dump site.

But whenever they found a “port” for the waste--first the BKK landfill in West Covina and later, disposal sites in Santa Barbara and Kern counties--disgruntled residents, lawsuits and bureaucratic bungles left them wringing their hands in defeat.

“We have all this waste . . . with no place to go,” said Moskowitz. “It’s regrettable, and annoying.”

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The project was dealt its most recent and perhaps most severe setback on May 31, when Superior Court Judge H. Walter Croskey ruled that health officials would have to prepare an environmental impact report before the first shovel of sludge can be moved from the McColl site. Health officials said it would take six to eight months to prepare that report.

Reconsidering Incineration

The delays have left health officials wondering if digging up and dumping the waste elsewhere is the best way to solve the problem. They are now reconsidering an alternative they debated and rejected more than three years ago.

Instead of moving the waste, the state might burn it.

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“Our staff truly wanted incineration from the beginning,” said Mike Golden, project manager for the state Department of Health Services. “It was the preferred choice. Instead of digging up the waste, taking it somewhere else and treating it, you burn it up. You get rid of it altogether. Incineration eventually was ruled out, though, because the cost was too high and there were time constraints.”

When state health specialists met with Stauffer Chemical Co. officials in the summer of 1983 to discuss incinerating the McColl waste, executives with the firm said it would take several months to modify its Carson plant to handle such a project, Golden said. In addition, Stauffer wanted $6 million to $8 million in advance, which the state did not have.

But circumstances have changed, Golden said, and incineration has become more attractive.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency in November began requiring waste-disposal facilities to line their vaults with clay and plastic to prevent seepage. This tripled the cost of what had been the cheapest method of disposing of hazardous wastes, thus narrowing the price gap between excavation and incineration.

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The time needed to modify Stauffer Chemical facilities no longer concerns state health officials, Golden said, because they have learned the painful lesson that environmental impact reports and lawsuits make excavating and disposing of hazardous wastes just as time consuming, if not more so.

In addition, Golden said, the state now has the money Stauffer wanted in advance to do the job. More than $26 million in federal Superfund money has been set aside to clean up the Fullerton dump site.

“You could safely say that it (incineration) will be strongly considered,” Golden said. “We’ll be taking a good, hard look at that as an option.”

There are other options as well, and government officials scrambling in the wake of Judge Croskey’s ruling will have to reconsider all of them in order to meet the requirements of an environmental impact report. They admit, however, that at least two of the options are either politically or scientifically doomed to failure.

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One choice is to leave the approximately 220,000 tons of contaminated soil at the site, grind it up and “detoxify” it with chemicals. “I don’t know if technology has advanced over the past few years to the point that that would be a viable alternative,” said Keith Takata, chief of the toxics and waste management division of the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco.

“Trapping” wastes at the site with 40-foot deep concrete walls and a layer of concrete over the top is another possibility, but one that health officials believe is also destined to fail. The containment option was recommended by the six oil companies responsible for dumping the wastes, primarily because it was the cheapest method. Cost estimates ranged from $7 million to $17 million.

Takata said the EPA has “looked dimly” on any method that would leave the contaminated soil at the site. And U.S. Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) acknowledges that it wouldn’t be feasible to leave the soil at McColl because neighbors of the dump site wouldn’t stand for it.

“Any option other than complete removal from the site would almost have to receive the blessings of the people (living near) the dump because--let’s face it--they’ll ask for yet another EIR and they’ll go to court and the project will be delayed for years,” Dannemeyer said. “Common sense tells you that.”

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Removal Strongly Favored

Whatever decision is reached, it can’t come too soon for the hundreds of people who live near the McColl site. The dump was opened in the 1940s on land owned by the late Eli McColl in what was then a rural area of Fullerton. Oil companies producing aviation fuel during World War II dumped thousands of tons of waste materials into 12 sumps there.

The dump site today lies under a vacant field and a portion of a nine-hole golf course on the Los Coyotes Country Club, surrounded on three sides by expensive houses. State officials say the soil contains sulfuric acid, benzene and arsenic. Residents say sulfur dioxide fumes have caused them to suffer headaches, nausea and respiratory problems.

In addition to ordering the environmental report, Croskey, a Los Angeles judge assigned to Kern County for the case, issued an injunction barring the trucking of the contaminated soil to the Petroleum Waste Inc. disposal facility near Buttonwillow, a Kern County farming community.

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Health officials were particularly frustrated by the judge’s insistence on the environmental impact report. They contend that the studies, essentially, have already been conducted, though not in the form of an EIR.

Golden and others fear that even when the EIR is completed, it will merely raise a “red flag” and prompt Kern County to file another lawsuit, this time on the basis that the study was inadequate. In fact, health officials believe that no matter which disposal site is chosen to receive the McColl wastes, neighbors of the site and public officials will file a lawsuit to delay the project.

Golden, Takata and other health and environmental officials acknowledge, however, that their presumption that government was exempt from EIR requirements is at least partly to blame for the delay in cleaning up the McColl site.

Asked why an EIR was not drawn up years ago to guard against such a court case, Golden replied, “I honestly don’t know.”

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Dannemeyer and health officials say that if the EPA and state Department of Health Services are required to do an EIR every time they start a disposal project, the cleanup of 60 hazardous waste sites in California could be seriously delayed, and cleanup costs will soar. Dannemeyer is sponsoring legislation to exempt the EPA from the need to compile environmental impact reports on state projects supported by federal Superfund money.

The state also discovered that it erred when officials contracted with Canonie Engineers of Chesterton, Ind., to begin work at McColl before they had been guaranteed access to a disposal facility.

Since hiring Canonie in the spring of 1984, the state has been rebuffed in attempts to move the waste to BKK landfill in West Covina, then to the Casmalia Resources landfill in Santa Barbara County, and, finally, to the Petroleum Waste landfill in Kern County. The delays are costing the state and EPA thousands of dollars a day.

State health officials have not yet decided whether to retain Canonie for the McColl project or attempt to back out of the contract. A decision is expected to be reached within the next two to three weeks. Until then, about 10 Canonie employees remain at the site, keeping themselves busy doing soil tests.

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“What we’ve learned,” said Steven Viani, McColl project manager for the state Department of Health Services, “is that we should not let any contracts until we have absolute access to a disposal site.”

Moskowitz said health officials did not anticipate the closing of the BKK landfill, or the EPA’s lining requirements that raised the price at the Casmalia landfill more than fourfold--to $140 a ton from $30.

So, rather than dump the McColl waste elsewhere, state and federal health officials are leaning more and more toward setting it ablaze.

In 1983, when the health officials first met with Stauffer Chemical officials to see if incineration was feasible, it was estimated that burning the waste would cost about $4 million more than removing it to another landfill. But more than a year of delays and stricter EPA regulations may have raised the cost of landfill disposal so high that incineration is once again competitive.

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Doug Riley, project director for the sulfuric acid division of Stauffer Chemical, said the company has been burning sulfuric-acid waste as part of a recycling program since the 1940s. At the time executives met with state health officials, it was determined that equipment the company already had could handle between 30% and 80% of the wastes at the McColl dump site, Riley said.

“It’s hard to remember what the exact percentage was,” Riley said Friday, “because you’re talking about meetings held two years ago.”

Modification Cost Disputed

Riley agreed with Golden that the company asked for money in advance so incineration equipment could be modified to handle a larger volume of the McColl waste. But he said Golden’s recollection of the amount as $6 million to $8 million “might be a little on the high side.”

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Stauffer executives told state health officials it would take “six to 12 months” to modify incineration equipment to burn the material, Riley recalled.

The company has had no contact with state or federal EPA officials since those meetings, Riley said, but he did not rule out future negotiations on the McColl project.

“Of course, a decision rests with others in the company,” Riley said. “But we met with them once. I don’t see why we couldn’t sit down with them again.”


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