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Toxic Waste Scare Is Missing Something : Westminster Residents Lack Initiative, Organization Needed to Ensure Quick Cleanup

It is not often that neighborhood reaction to the discovery of a toxic waste site is so underwhelming that government officials wonder aloud why so few people are complaining.

That is the case, however, with the Westminster neighborhood that is likely to be named Orange County’s newest federal Superfund site. While overreacting to the situation would be inadvisable, residents at least should get organized if they want to keep their neighborhood on the front burner in the lengthy cleanup process now getting under way.

The 73-home subdivision near the San Diego Freeway at Golden West Street, which was built in the late 1950s, was first identified as a toxic waste site almost 10 years ago after a resident reported black ooze in her swimming pool. The goop was later found to contain several potential cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene, arsenic and lead. It affects 23 acres of an area once known as Murdy Dairy Farm, which was near a refinery that serviced oil fields in the 1930s and 1940s.

If named to the Superfund list, the Westminster site would join McColl dump in Fullerton and the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station as areas in Orange County targeted for federal cleanup.

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But, as frustrated residents near those sites can attest, inclusion on the Superfund list does not mean cleanup will come quickly.

Of the 1,200 Superfund sites nationwide, only a handful actually have been cleared of waste. There is fierce competition for limited Superfund money, frequent controversies over cleanup methods and bitter arguments over whether those responsible for the toxics must be forced to pay the bill.

Pressure from local residents is one way to move a project forward. Last week, however, more state officials than residents showed up at an informational meeting about the Westminster site. One resident, long aware of the situation, earlier had called it “really ho-hum for us.”

The globs do seem to pose little risk as long as they are not handled by residents and as long as no food is grown in contaminated ground. But state officials have warned residents to keep children and pets away from the tarlike waste, which seeps to the ground’s surface during hot weather. That is enough reason for residents to be uneasy, or at least concerned enough to want to learn more.

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Of course, there is no need to get hysterical about the situation. But if residents want their neighborhood cleaned up, they must resolve to get more involved.


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