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Oil Companies Shun McColl Dump Testing : Litigation: They are willing to pay for others to check possible contamination of the ground water but fear possible huge liabilities if their employees are involved.

In response to an Environmental Protection Agency order, a group of oil companies offered Tuesday to pay the costs of testing ground water at the McColl toxic waste dump but said they don’t want to do it themselves.

In May, the EPA ordered the companies and the owner of McColl to test for possible toxins leaking into drinking water supplies and to guard the site 24 hours a day.

Although the companies are willing to pay for those activities, they fear that putting their own workers at McColl could expose the companies to lawsuits if more environmental problems occur at the site, said William Duchie of Shell Oil, a spokesman for the companies.

The EPA considers the oil companies--Shell Oil, Union Oil, Atlantic Richfield, Texaco Refining and Marketing, and Phillips Petroleum--and the dump’s owner, McAuley LCX, potentially liable for cleaning up the estimated 150,000 tons of refinery wastes legally disposed of at McColl during World War II.

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EPA officials had not had the time Tuesday to read through the oil companies’ 100-page faxed response to the maintenance order, EPA spokeswoman Lois Grunwald said.

“But if their response is (only) to fund the work, then it appears their response is inadequate,” she said.

The EPA should decide by Friday what action to take next against the companies, EPA spokesman Terry Wilson said. Possible action includes taking the companies to court to force them to maintain the McColl site, he said.

If the issue results in a court battle, the EPA will go ahead and conduct the ground-water tests and seek reimbursement from the companies, Wilson said. The agency wants more tests at McColl because earlier studies showed a possible slight contamination from wastes leaching into the ground water, he said.

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The amount of contamination was not considered harmful, and no contaminants have been detected in public water wells, EPA officials have said. Besides testing the ground water, the EPA also is in the process of conducting a three-week test dig at McColl to find possible flaws with its preferred cleanup method of digging up the wastes and burning them at high temperature.

The EPA has said it will announce its final cleanup method in the spring, at which time the agency is expected to order the oil companies and McAuley to conduct the actual cleanup work. Cleaning up McColl has been estimated to cost from $150 million to $500 million.

The oil companies, though, have consistently said they are not responsible for cleaning up McColl and have vowed to fight any cleanup order. Duchie said he believes the federal government should pay for the cleanup, since the wastes were produced during the refining of high-octane aviation fuel for the Defense Department.

The wastes at McColl have resulted in odor and health complaints from residents who moved into subdivisions built around the dump in the 1970s. Some homes are only a few hundred feet from the waste pits, now covered under layers of dirt.

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In two rounds of lawsuits, some just recently settled, groups of residents sued the developers, oil companies and others, saying the dump has caused them health problems and lowered their property values. In all, residents have received more than $20 million in settlements over McColl.


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