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Settling Dump Gives Homeowners a Sinking Feeling : Rolling Hills Estates: Residents of a posh neighborhood turn to the city in anger as movement in an old landfill damages their property. Many fear emissions could be explosive.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, the surface of an old landfill has been cracking and sinking behind a dozen expensive homes in Rolling Hills Estates, emitting what residents fear are noxious vapors and potentially explosive methane gas.

The slippage, caused by rotting household garbage and yard trash buried underground, has damaged horse barns, corrals and driveways at homes on Moccasin Lane. Trees and shrubs have died, and irate homeowners say parts of their one-acre lots have been rendered virtually unusable.

Now, fearing underground gas explosions or worse, residents say they have had enough and are asking the city for help. For its part, the City Council has formed a special committee to study the problem, and health and sanitation officials have been asked to find out whether hazardous wastes lurk just beneath the surface.

Called the Hawthorne Landfill, the canyon site between Hawthorne Boulevard and Moccasin Lane was filled by the County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles two decades ago. The city and the developer who owned the property at the time agreed to dumping and filling there, district officials said, adding that some slippage is normal in a dump area.

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Yet, no one seems to know whether there are hazardous wastes in the landfill, which was covered in 1968 before the upscale homes were built in the boots-and-saddles neighborhood. Nor has anyone assessed the potential dangers posed by methane gas or other chemicals escaping through the fissures, officials acknowledge.

“There’s no telling what’s down there,” City Manager Douglas Prichard said.

Typically, decomposing wastes emit methane, carbon dioxide and traces of solvents such as benzene, said John Gullege, solid-waste management expert for the sanitation districts.

“We don’t know the exact composition of the gas there, but we don’t think it is dangerous,” he said. The dump could contain “anything a homeowner might throw out,” including cleaning agents and old pesticide containers, he conceded.

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Homeowners along the north side of Moccasin Lane consider the situation dangerous and ruinous to their property values. They complain that, until recently, city and sanitation district officials have ignored their longstanding pleas for help. They said the land began sinking in 1981, and the problem is getting worse.

“I can’t sell my ($850,000) house with a problem like this,” said Stan Willis, a merchant mariner who has lived on Moccasin Lane for two decades.

The sinking land behind Willis’ house is cracked and steaming. “Nothing will grow back there now,” he said.

The controversy flared in November when the city cited one landowner for hauling loads of fill dirt into the sinking area without obtaining proper permits.

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Moccasin Lane residents Dr. Richard Antioch and his wife, Dorothy, were cited in Torrance Municipal Court on misdemeanor charges after they refused to get a permit. A trial is scheduled for mid-January, Dorothy Antioch said.

“Why should we have to get a permit?” she asked. She said their back yard is sinking, and deep holes and cracks have appeared that must be filled. “The city should be helping us, not wasting time and money prosecuting us.”

The city’s confrontation with the Antiochs prompted neighbors to band together and confront the City Council twice in November, talking lawyers and lawsuits. They claim the city and the sanitation districts are at fault and should clean up the mess.

In response, Councilwomen Jacki McGuire and Barbara Rauch were named to a special subcommittee to study the problem. The city also asked health and sanitation officials to investigate the dump to find out whether hazardous wastes are there.

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“We’re worried about toxics, methane gas and underground explosions,” McGuire said. “We have to know what’s under there. . . . The dump could contain a potential health hazard.”

Sanitation districts officials offered to install a methane gas collection system on the old dump site and pipe off the gas, but only if the homeowners met certain conditions, such as assuming responsibility for maintaining the soil cap over the dump.

Residents complain that the officials are trying to force them to sign waivers that exempt the districts from any liability in case of an explosion or fire, or if something else goes wrong.

“They are trying to make us assume all of the liability . . . that’s just not right,” said Jack and Barbara Epstein, who have lived on Moccasin Lane for 20 years.

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“When we bought here, we didn’t know (about the dump); we were never told,” she said. Their land began to sink under their barns and corrals in 1984.

Like other homes in the area, the Epstein house is on solid ground and hasn’t been affected. However, the view from their patio is desolate: Corral fences sag, and piles of rubble show where barns used to be. Nothing grows well in the back yards, but it is the gas they worry about the most.

“We feel the situation is extremely dangerous . . . and want (the city or the sanitation districts) to remove the hazard,” Jack Epstein said.

Hawthorne Landfill

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A 23-year-old former dump fills part of a small canyon that runs across the rear of a dozen lots on Moccasin Lane, just off of Hawthorne Boulevard in Rolling Hills Estates. The earthen cap on the landfill has sunk six feet in some places, destroying barns and corrals and releasing noxious steam and methane gas.


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