Toxic soil lurks beneath Carson neighborhood

Share via

When Ron and Belinda Oglesby moved into Carson’s Carousel neighborhood in 2003, they saw a solid, middle-class area where homeowners set down roots and lived for decades, where Santa Claus paraded through the streets on a firetruck and children returned to buy their own homes.

This, they told themselves, was the perfect place to raise their three kids.

Six years later, they noticed workmen drilling holes and leaving cryptic white marks on the streets.

By last summer, they had discovered what the sudden activity meant: Preliminary tests under the direction of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board had found dangerous levels of potentially explosive methane gas and benzene under the 285 homes of the Carousel tract. In some spots, tests found benzene at concentrations seldom seen, levels that could significantly increase cancer risks for residents.

The discovery has transformed a 50-acre neighborhood of palm trees and quiet streets into an environmental case study — a reminder of Southern California’s history as a center of the oil industry and the problems of ground pollution that continue to dot the region.

“How can you get a good night’s sleep?” Belinda Oglesby said. “I tell my husband, ‘Get me out of here,’ but where are we going? Who’d buy our house? It’s like a nightmare that never goes away.”

Things have only seemed to get worse. In March, the water quality board told residents not to eat fruit or vegetables grown in their backyards. Shell Oil Co., which once stored millions of gallons of crude oil in giant tanks where the houses now stand, sent letters to more than 20 homeowners recommending they minimize contact with “exposed soil in your yard.”

Many residents have begun anxiously wondering about their health. Oglesby worries about whether contamination caused her weak immune system, the chronic rashes her daughters have developed and the 10-year-old’s memory problems. A neighbor, Rosemary Noval, has the same questions about her husband’s previous bout with cancer.

Others ask about the tar-like substance that sometimes bubbles up into their lawns or through cracks in their patio.

Noval said she worries that her years of gardening have exposed her to dangerous chemicals, especially after she watched investigators pull dark, wet soil from her backyard that smelled like oil.

“The garden is where the soul feels at home,” she said. “That’s how I feel when I’m in the garden. Now I’m no longer happy in my garden because I know what’s underneath.”

“Our lives are full of uncertainty and heartache and disappointment,” she said. “That’s our lives now. It’s been ripped from us.”

The contamination in Carson was discovered by accident. Two years ago, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control was investigating the site of an old chemical plant west of the Carousel neighborhood when workers found benzene and other petroleum products in the soil and groundwater. Because the chemical plant had rarely used those products, investigators concluded they had migrated from elsewhere. The old Shell tank farm was the most likely suspect.

Starting in 1924, Shell had stored oil in what were essentially giant concrete bathtubs covered with wood. The tank farm operated in conjunction with a refinery 1 1/2 miles to the east until the mid-1960s, when the tanks were demolished and Shell sold the property. The first homes were built on the site around 1970, state records indicate.

Alison Abbott Chassin, Shell’s external affairs manager, said the oil company sold the 50 acres as is, and it was the responsibility of the developer to clean up the site.

Shell officials also have said there could be causes of contamination other than the oil tanks. Gene Freed, Shell’s project manager, said chemical residue at some homes could have been left behind by previous owners who enjoyed fiddling with cars, or been from pesticides or other household chemicals.

The company found no contamination in a house it tested near the spot on Neptune Avenue where benzene levels were highest, Freed said.

“It could be as simple as the gardener spilled gasoline there when filling up his lawn mower,” he said. “There are all kinds of things we’re finding that are not related to our operations.”

Tracy Egoscue, the water board’s executive officer, said no developer would be allowed to build on the Carousel tract today. Regardless of what the environmental laws were when Shell sold the land, the company now is legally responsible for cleaning it up, she added.

Shell was slow to cooperate with the investigation, Egoscue said. “Initially they were dragging their feet,” she added. The agency sent the company a notice of violation in April 2009.

Most residents have joined a lawsuit against Shell and others including developer Barclay Hollander Corp., which was bought by Dole Foods, according to attorneys involved in the case. Tom Girardi, the homeowners’ attorney, said Shell knew the area was polluted when it sold the property in 1966.

“It’s the most despicable situation I’ve seen in 40 years of doing this,” said Girardi, who represented plaintiffs in the in the case against Pacific Gas & Electric made famous by the movie “Erin Brockovich.” He said it was Brockovich who alerted him to the situation in the Carousel neighborhood.

Sam Unger, the water board’s assistant executive officer, said the Carousel tract “has the potential to be a very large cleanup, complicated by people living on it.” In several previous cases around the country, oil companies, chemical firms and developers have ended up paying tens of millions — sometimes hundreds of millions — of dollars to clean up polluted sites and buy homes that were built on top of polluted soil.

The homeowner lawsuit claims Shell found “significant levels of benzene” at 66 of 73 locations the company drilled, mostly streets and other public areas. In a letter to the water board, Girardi said the cancer risk exceeds the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s level of risk by a factor of 1,400. At the high level, the concentration of benzene in soil gas would be estimated to cause one additional cancer case for each 10 people who breathed it for 30 years of a 70-year lifetime.

Several experts interviewed by The Times said they were surprised at the benzene levels. David Siegel, chief of the Integrated Risk Assessment Branch of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said if testing finds such levels inside homes, he would be worried not only about long-term effects, but short-term problems such as birth defects and neurological problems in children.

Martyn T. Smith, a professor of toxicology at UC Berkeley, said the key is how much benzene is entering people’s houses.

Even if the levels in homes turns out to be low, however, a child playing in the dirt or a dog digging with a child nearby could lead to considerable exposure, he said. “I would be highly concerned about such a site,” he said.

The level of benzene found so far “boggles my mind,” said Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an environmental advocacy group that focuses on communities at risk from toxic chemicals. “It poses serious risks for homes and any place where it could reach the public.”

Shell is now testing homes and digging for more samples under water board supervision. The company is splitting the samples with Girardi’s firm.

Early this month, Girardi’s investigators dug a 7-foot-deep trench in the frontyard of Adolfo Valdez’s beige ranch-style house. They hit oil mixed with the dirt at about a foot and a half, said Mark Zeko, principal hydrogeologist for Environmental Engineering and Contracting Inc. The air around the house smelled like a gas station.

Valdez, a longshoreman who has done extensive remodeling to the house himself, tells his four daughters they can’t kick the soccer ball around in the frontyard any more. “I wish I could leave,” he said. “I wish they could put me up in a rental house. What are we supposed to do?”

A house two doors down was in escrow when the buyers learned about the contamination and pulled out.

Carson Mayor Jim Dear said he hoped the attorney general will file a civil suit against Shell.

He thinks Shell and the water board are moving too slowly. “Put yourself in the shoes of someone living there,” he said. “Not knowing if it’s a dangerous environment is psychological torture.”

That’s how Matt Priest feels. Priest grew up on Marbella Avenue and bought a fixer-upper four doors down from his parents in 2003.

The longshoreman figures he’s spent $100,000 on copper plumbing, a new electrical system, granite counters and a stainless-steel double oven.

Lumber and drywall are stacked in the living room, and he wonders whether he should bother continuing with the renovation. The smell of gas permeates the house.

His mother has a rare liver disease, and his father has a disabling brain condition. At 42, Priest has an enlarged prostate, and he wonders if the contamination contributed to these medical problems.

“I’m hoping they’ll buy us out and knock down the houses,” he said. “I don’t want to live here anymore. Every day I live here is a bad day.”