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Ascon landfill site cleanup resuming in Huntington Beach

The former Ascon landfill site is shown in this aerial photo from 2019.
(Allen Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The controversial cleanup of the former Ascon landfill site in southeast Huntington Beach is resuming after nearly two years.

Regulators from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control held a one-hour virtual meeting with residents Thursday night over Zoom. The meeting detailed plans to remove toxic waste from “Pit F,” a 45-foot wide and 30-foot deep portion of the site deemed the most toxic and currently covered by a white tent.

Excavation work on Pit F is set to begin in June and continue through August, said Safouh Sayed, DTSC project manager.

The toxic substances will be excavated from the 38-acre site, located at the corner of Magnolia Street and Hamilton Avenue. The waste will be put into bins that will be sealed for transport while inside the tent. The bins will be pulled from the tent and loaded onto trucks, and the waste will be hauled away to Buttonwillow in Central California.

“We’ve cleaned up thousands of sites all across the state,” said Grant Cope, deputy director of the DTSC cleanup program. “At this point, roughly one in three people in California live within a mile of a site we’ve worked on at some point ... Ascon is one example, a very important example. We know that we have a long way to go at the site, and it’s our commitment to you to walk with you and bring you along with us, be transparent in what we want to do and most importantly get your feedback.”

Sharon Messick, who lives about half a mile from the site, attended the virtual meeting. She is one of five southeast Huntington Beach community members who have been meeting with the DTSC and Ascon monthly about the project and formed the Huntington Beach Landfill Awareness Project group on Facebook.

Despite her reservations, Messick praised the groups for working with the residents. Cleanup was stopped in June 2019 after residents offered pointed critiques of state and local officials in a contentious meeting at Edison High School, some claiming they had already suffered adverse health effects and others complaining about odors.

Pit F in the former Ascon landfill site is scheduled to be excavated this summer.
(Courtesy of California Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Since then, there has been around-the-clock air monitoring at the site and mitigation of a berm on the north part of the site adjacent to Hamilton Avenue, branch chief Ed Morelan said. Other actions have included the installation of a barrier fence to control dust, odor and sound. An independent technical advisor, Andrew Cherene, was hired and reports to the city of Huntington Beach.

Messick said records show there are at least nine toxins in the waste besides styrene, which is the one that the DTSC identified in communications to neighbors.

“I do believe they’ve done everything they possibly could to make it as safe as possible, but there’s nine cancer-causing chemicals in that pit,” Messick said. “There is no comparable cleanup that the DTSC could give us, that we could see how it went. There’s never been one like this, with this kind of chemical mix, that has been done before.”

Amit Pathak, senior engineer on the DTSC project team, said that air quality will be extensively monitored in the area during the excavation, though there is no risk to anyone outside of the tent. He said the tent will maintain negative pressure and act as a vacuum.

“Any potential air contaminants that might be generated during the excavation process will be captured and treated,” Pathak said.

Messick was skeptical of that assertion, however.

“They’ve done all of the safety measures, but it’s the unknowns,” she said. “It’s the unknowns about the nature of this Pit F, and the uncontrollable [factors] — human error, malfunction of equipment. This is like a pilot remediation, in a sense.”

Ascon was an active landfill from 1938 to 1984. It first received oil production waste, then construction debris and industrial waste.

Residents can sign up for AsconAlert, an opt-in phone or email alert system if there are unplanned activities or events at the Ascon site. Those interested can text “Ascon” to 99411 or register online at public.coderedweb.com/CGE/BF3A0A035537.

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