Showdown at Hand on McColl Cleanup : EPA’s Plan to Incinerate Hazardous Waste on Site to Be Outlined Tuesday in Fullerton

Times Staff Writers

The eerie quiet at the abandoned McColl dump in the hills of western Fullerton belies its past as one of California’s worst hazardous-waste sites.

It also gives no hint of what is ahead for the 8-acre site, should the Environmental Protection Agency have its way.

The mustard grass and weeds that now cover the rolling terrain would be replaced by a bulky incinerator with a 60-foot-high exhaust stack. The piercing cries of the red-tailed hawks that now soar overhead would be lost among the sounds of heavy equipment operated by masked workers in asbestos suits, who will be excavating tons of contaminated earth and sludge to feed the incinerator.

The incinerator would churn continuously for up to 7 years while the slow, methodical removal and disposal of World War II-era toxic refinery wastes and oil-drilling mud proceeded a stone’s throw from neighborhoods of expensive, single-family homes and the private Los Coyotes Country Club.

10 Years of Hearings, Reports, Protests

The disruption, state and federal officials say, is needed to accomplish something that more than 10 years of hearings, reports, court orders and citizen protests have failed to bring about: the permanent cleanup of the McColl dump.


To that end, the EPA last month recommended incineration on the site as the best way of ridding the dump of 150,000 tons of tainted soil and acidic sludge by excavating and burning it on site--at an estimated cost of $117 million.

Incineration is touted by some regulators as the wave of the future in disposal technology. Although incineration can produce hazardous ash, more than half of the toxic sludge and contaminated soil is destroyed, which avoids the permanent risk associated with dumping toxic materials in landfills. Moreover, under federal law, depositing untreated hazardous waste in landfills will be virtually prohibited by 1990, aggravating an already-serious shortage of legal disposal sites nationwide.

As far as EPA officials are concerned, on-site incineration of the waste would also avoid the complicated legal and political questions that would accompany plans to haul the material elsewhere for redisposal. Further, incineration would address the concerns of the site’s neighbors and city officials who oppose leaving the wastes in the ground.

The incineration plan will be outlined Tuesday by representatives of the EPA and the state Department of Health Services at a community meeting with McColl-area residents in Fullerton. The 7 p.m. meeting will be at Parks Junior High School, 1710 Rosecrans Ave.

The EPA’s incineration plan has already won support from state and local officials. But two key groups in the McColl equation--residents living near the dump and a coalition of oil companies potentially responsible for cleanup costs at the site--have not endorsed the incineration proposal.

Some neighbors, frustrated by past cleanup plans that offered promise, only to go bust, have expressed cautious optimism that incineration may be the answer at last. But the plan to build a warehouse-size incinerator at McColl has apparently divided many of the 1,000 homeowners who live within half a mile of the dump.

“Incineration looks promising,” said Betty Porras, who lives behind the dump and leads the McColl Dump Action Group, a group of area homeowners pushing for cleanup. “But many residents are divided when it comes to burning that stuff on site. A lot of people are uneasy.”

Companies Favor Leaving Waste Capped in Ground

Flatly opposed to EPA’s incineration plan are the five oil companies that federal officials have identified as the parties believed most likely to have been responsible for the wastes. The companies favor leaving the refinery waste and oil-drilling mud in the ground and capping the site with a synthetic or clay cover to prevent the noxious sludges from oozing to the surface.

This approach, officials for the companies say, would be safer for residents than excavation and incineration of the wastes, and would eliminate any potential health risks.

(EPA officials have said there is little health risk posed by the incineration plan.)

“It is one option that we can implement immediately,” said Bill Duchie, a spokesman for the McColl Site Group, the name under which the oil companies have organized to handle McColl-related matters. “It also gives us time to find some new cleanup technologies, something other than incineration, to more safely dispose of waste at the dump.”

But Fullerton officials remain adamantly opposed to capping the waste.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” said Barry Eaton, a senior planner with the city. “All it does is transfer the problem to a future generation, (when) it would be much more expensive to solve.”

Capping Waste Least Expensive

At an estimated cost of $22 million, entombing the waste in the ground is much cheaper than on-site incineration, or even redisposal or incineration of McColl wastes elsewhere, which could cost $160 million to $500 million, according to the EPA.

Federal officials estimate that it would take 6,000 truckloads to haul the waste from McColl to the nearest approved commercial incinerator in Texas. Moving that much toxic waste through hundreds of cities and counties would be an invitation to lawsuits that could, by themselves, doom the hauling option, Eaton said.

“Other communities could come and grind the whole process to a stop through lawsuits and everything,” Eaton said. “If we take responsibility for solving the problem in Fullerton, at least we don’t open ourselves to lawsuits from who knows how many other communities.”

But the cost of the cleanup is key to the oil companies: Shell Oil Co., Phillips Petroleum, Texaco, Arco and Unocal. Federal officials say the companies must pay the cleanup bill before any work at the site begins. If the companies balk at paying, the EPA has said it is prepared to file suit to recover cleanup costs.

Oil Firms Encourage Foes

Both the companies and EPA agree that should the payment issue wind up in court, it could significantly delay the cleanup. In the meantime, the companies are trying to gain support for their position, targeting residents in northern Orange County and encouraging incineration foes to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

John Blevins, the EPA’s McColl project manager, said a formal decision on incineration will not be made until August, after two test burns of wastes from McColl. One test, lasting about 3 to 5 days, will be conducted early in April at Ogden Environmental Services Inc. in La Jolla. Ogden is expected to conduct a second, monthlong test at the McColl site by early summer.

Engineers and chemists, Blevins said, will monitor air emissions from the incinerator and the toxicity of the ash produced by the test burn.

Blevins said federal officials want to redeposit the ash at the dump because it would be cheaper than hauling it off the site for redisposal. Because of the nature of the compounds buried at McColl, and the thoroughness of incineration, Blevins said he expects the “the residue from incineration to be non-hazardous. We don’t anticipate this will be a problem.”

Ash Itself May Be Dangerous

However, some experts believe that the ash residue produced by incineration is a major issue that cannot be dismissed so lightly.

“Ash waste can be toxic itself,” said Art Taddeo, project manager for Cambridge Analytical Associates, an environmental testing and waste management firm in the Boston area. “So in the end of this process, you may still be paying a lot of money only to produce some level of air pollution and ash waste that is so toxic itself that you have to get rid it.”

Incineration of waste, whether it is common garbage or hazardous materials, has proven to be an emotional issue, particularly in densely populated areas. In Southern California, concerns about emissions, noise and exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals and substances have boiled into community protests that have stalled or even blocked proposed incineration projects.

In Los Angeles, a $235-million trash-to-energy incinerator was scrapped by city officials in 1987 because of residents’ fears that the plant, which was to burn non-hazardous materials, might emit such cancer-causing pollutants as dioxins. Despite assurances from operators of the proposed Lancer Project that the plant posed no risk, residents in South-Central Los Angeles, where the incinerator was to have been built, organized against it and persuaded key city officials to oppose it.

Public Support Is Difficult

“It’s getting harder and harder to win public support for incineration in major metropolitan areas, even when it doesn’t involve hazardous waste,” said Alan Borner, president of the Environmental Hazards Management Institute in New Hampshire, a nonprofit, nonpartisan consulting group.

“Unlike 10 years ago, the public is sensitized to health and safety threats, even when it is clearly demonstrated that a project is safe,” he said. “As tough as it is getting support for a plant to burn everyday garbage, imagine how hard it is to push a hazardous-waste facility.”

One such proposal to build a large, hazardous-waste incinerator in the city of Vernon, about 4 miles southeast of Los Angeles, has had strong community foes, who have tied up the $30-million project. As proposed, the plant would burn up to 22,500 tons a year of waste sludges, solvents and oils from various industrial and commercial generators.

If approved, the facility would be the state’s first full-scale, commercial, hazardous-waste incinerator. But the plan has been challenged in court by a coalition of residents and local elected officials, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District has required a full-scale environmental impact review before it decides whether to issue construction permits.

Report to Focus on Emissions

The report due later this year will focus on potential emissions and noise from the plant.

“There is no doubt that solutions must be found to dispose of all kinds of wastes, particularly hazardous waste,” AQMD spokesman Thomas L. Eichhorn said. “But as a regulatory agency, we must balance the interest of all parties, including those who must live in the shadows of these facilities.”

Some waste disposal operators say that no matter how much safety evidence is presented, the public simply is not going to support such projects.

“It is difficult to prove to a community that there are no significant health risks,” said Karen Clancy, a spokeswoman for Clean Harbors Inc., a Massachusetts-based company that wants to add a hazardous-waste incinerator to its trash-burning facility in the Boston suburb of Braintree. The incinerator would be similar in size and type to the one EPA has studied for McColl. It would be the first commercial hazardous-waste incinerator in Massachusetts.

Some residents of the working-class town of 35,000 residents fear that Braintree would become the “toxic waste capital of New England.”

‘Is It Worth the Risk?’

“They shouldn’t put this thing less than a quarter of a mile from a shopping center, a senior citizen housing project and a park,” Braintree Fire Capt. John Grande said. “It doesn’t take any brains to see that the trucks carrying this hazardous waste would have to travel on Braintree streets, and undoubtedly, someday, there will be an accident and a fire. Is it worth the risk?”

In the case of McColl, the positions are not so clearly defined.

While residents have voiced cautious optimism about the EPA’s plan, the oil coalition has been trying to rally opposition to the more costly incineration option.

In recent days, the companies have operated a telephone bank calling several thousand households in six north county cities. Callers have been asked whether they support incineration. If the answer is no, they are urged to attend Tuesday’s meeting. The meeting is never mentioned if the caller favors incineration.

The companies have also spent about $5,000 to mail a flyer outlining the McColl cleanup options and urging attendance at the community meeting. Residents in Fullerton, Buena Park, La Habra, Brea, Placentia and Yorba Linda have reportedly received the mailing. Some of the targeted households are up to 7 miles from the McColl dump.

Attempt at Confusion Alleged

Porras of the McColl Dump Action Group accused the oil companies of intentionally banding together under the McColl Site Group name to confuse residents. That name, she noted, is similar to that of her citizen group.

Duchie, the oil coalition’s spokesman, said the telephone survey and mailer are intended simply to alert area residents about the meeting. And he defended mailers to cities as far east as Yorba Linda, saying emissions from an incinerator could be carried over a significant distance in various directions by shifting wind patterns.

“We want people who are going to ask questions to ask them now, not in 1992, when we are millions of dollars into the process,” Duchie said. “Too often, people find out after the fact (that) they had a chance to voice their feelings. We’ve come too far, spent too much time, not to get this thing settled once and for all.”

Coalition’s Name Explanation

As for potential confusion over the names of the two groups, Duchie said the oil companies settled on McColl Site Group because it quickly and easily identifies the group and issue.

“In communications, you have to have some way to grab people’s attention,” Duchie said. “McColl Site Group does that. . . . I can’t imagine anybody confusing our group with that of the residents.”

Porras views the oil companies’ tactics quite differently.

She described the companies’ telephone and mail push as “deceiving and blatantly unfair,” adding: “They are running a sophisticated campaign to undo what we have all fought so hard to accomplish--and that’s clean up this dump.”

MCCOLL DUMP SITE: OPTIONS FOR CLEANUP The Toxic Waste Problem The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans last month to dispose of more than 150,000 tons of toxic wastes from the McColl dump in Fullerton by burning it on site. Incineration of the contaminated petroleum wastes and oil drilling muds, buried at the now abandoned site in the 1940s and 1950s, was among four options considered by the EPA. A community hearing on the plan is scheduled for Tuesday night in Fullerton. ON-SITE INCINERATION Excavation and burning of toxic waste at the McColl dump site in a transportable incinerator. Cost: $117 million. Time: 4 to 7 years. Supporters: Local, state and federal officials, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as some neighboring residents. Potential Problems: Air emissions and ash residue, which could be hazardous and require transportation off site for redisposal. CLOSURE / CONTAINMENT Both options call for “capping” or entombing the toxic refinery waste and oil drilling muds in the ground. Closure is a simpler--and cheaper--alternative. The contaminants would be surrounded with subsurface walls that extend below, but not under the toxic waste. A synthethic cover would be placed over the top, sealing off the wastes. Containment consists of excavating the material and then building an underground container or vault of sorts into which the toxic waste would be redeposited and stored. CLOSURE Cost: $22 million. Time: 3 to 5 years. Supporters: Five oil companies--Shell Oil, Arco, Phillips Petroleum, Texaco and Unocal--named by federal officials as responsible for clean up of the dump. Potential Problems: Does not remove toxic wastes from site. Possible seepage into ground water. CONTAINMENT Cost: $85 million. Time: 4 to 7 years. Potential Problems: Does not remove toxic wastes from the site. OFF-SITE INCINERATION Hauling excavated waste and contaminated soil from McColl to an off-site incinerator. It is estimated that more than 6,000 truckloads would be required to remove all the contaminated material from the dump. Excavation would be conducted under a tent-like structure to reduce air emissions. The excavated material would be loaded into lined containers on the trucks, and then covered with foam. Cost: $160 to $500 million Time: 3 to 6 years. Potential Problems: Nearest commercial hazardous waste incinerator in Kansas, Texas or Arkansas. There also is a shortage of of legal hazardous waste landfills. SOURCE: U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency