In what state officials described as a landmark agreement capping years of controversy, seven major corporations Thursday promised to foot the bill for cleaning up Huntington Beach's closed Ascon Landfill, one of Orange County's oldest and foulest toxic waste sites.
The cleanup is expected to cost $35 million to $100 million and take about three years.
"This is a landmark decision in that so many corporations have agreed to address the problem," Byron Tucker, a spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis, said of the cleanup. "It represents an extreme degree of cooperation and coordination between private enterprise and the state."
The seven companies are Atlantic Richfield Co., Chevron Environmental Management, Conoco Inc. and Phillips Petroleum, the Dow Chemical Co., Shell Oil, Southern California Edison and Northrup Grumman Space & Mission System Corp., formerly known as TRW.
All are among firms identified by the state as contributors to the contamination of the 38-acre site at the southwest corner of Hamilton Avenue and Magnolia Street near Edison High School.
From 1938 through 1984, Ascon accepted waste from oil drilling operations and construction projects. Among the contaminants at the site, now owned by a land development company but unused since 1984, are volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds as well as metals such as arsenic and lead.
"It's been of concern to the community for a long time," said Thomas Cota, who is supervising the cleanup for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. "We finally have companies stepping up to the plate that are willing to implement a cleanup. In the long run, this will be protective of human health and the environment."
Mayor Connie Boardman was satisfied with the agreement. "It's been decades that that stuff has been sitting out there," she said. "I'm glad to see that there's finally been a resolution and that a cleanup will happen."
State and company experts will spend the next 10 to 12 months developing a cleanup plan and preparing a report on the environmental effects, Cota said. Once the report has been approved, the work can begin.
"Various entities over the years have tried to come in and prospect the site" for cleanup, he said, "but for one reason or another those attempts have all failed. We now finally have an agreement with parties that have the capability, the knowledge and the financial wherewithal to implement a project."
The goal, he said, is to make the land safe for "unrestricted use," including homes. The city has already approved 500 homes for the site, once all the toxic waste is removed.
A county grand jury report two years ago said the landfill's real danger was three 25-foot-deep oil-tar lagoons and a now-covered styrene pit. But the place was so hazardous, the report went on to say, "that there is no safe way to remove the contents of those lagoons without jeopardizing the safety of the surrounding community, including Edison High School."
On Thursday, Cota disagreed, contending that state toxicologists and other experts will come up with a viable plan.
"The department's major concern," he said, "is obviously protection of human health and the environment. We will be monitoring and overseeing the field activities to ensure that any type of cleanup is done in a protective manner."