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WESTMINSTER : Toxic Tar Taken From Lot, Yards

The two men sheathed in white suits, thick gloves, orange boots and clear goggles raised their shovels high and brought them down with a crash to crack the hard, 30-by-18-inch tar patch in a vacant lot on the corner of Golden West Street and Sowell Avenue.

They scooped the toxic pieces into a blue, 55-gallon drum, which was later taken to a hazardous-waste dump. The men then put a plastic lining into the remaining 12-inch-deep hole and covered it with fresh soil and grass seed.

The process was repeated Wednesday at two back yards in the same neighborhood as workers, contracted by the state Department of Health Services, removed black, acidic, toxic waste that has oozed from the ground and presented a potential health hazard to nearby residents.

The oil-refinery waste apparently came from nearby oil fields in the 1930s and ‘40s. The neighborhood, east of the San Diego Freeway, is the only dump site in California where waste is actually seeping into residents’ yards.

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This week’s removal of the tar seepage at six sites--four back yards on Kathy Street and Sowell Avenue, the flood-control channel running behind residences on Sowell Avenue and the vacant lot--was not meant to permanently stem the flow of the potentially cancer-causing chemicals, but only as a “Band-Aid” action, said Alan Hirsch of the Health Services Department.

Joseph E. Crisologo, a waste management engineer with the health department, said officials are working on a “final remedial action,” but had to remove the tar that has seeped out so people won’t touch dangerous waste.

“This was by no means a long-term solution,” Crisologo said. “The idea is to move that direct exposure.”

The final cleanup will be federally funded if the neighborhood is approved to join a Superfund list of toxic waste sites. A public comment period ends Sept. 26, and approval is expected because there are no protesting parties. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will oversee the final cleanup.

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Jim Cline, 26, a neighborhood resident, said he first noticed two tar patches, each the size of a man’s fist, in his back yard on Sowell Avenue about three months ago.

He said he had been covering the tar with a board so his two boys, ages 3 and 4, would not touch it. He also said he stopped working on his strawberry and vegetable gardens after listening to warnings from state health officials.

“If I could afford it I probably would move away, but I can’t,” Cline said.


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