ExxonMobil has yet to remediate 10 vacant Del Amo Boulevard lots where homes were razed after toxic gasoline by-products from the company's Torrance refinery were discovered in the soil in December 2007.
Company officials told the Daily Breeze in August 2011 that work to rehabilitate the contaminated lots would be completed within 13 weeks.
However, that timetable changed, city officials said, when the first contractor the company hired quit. ExxonMobil then said it intended to finish work by fall 2012.
But today the lots remain barren more than five years after the city red-tagged one home, discovered contaminants over a 16-acre swath of land, and eventually bought out the owners of 10 lots.
"We don't know what's going on out there," said Danny Santana, senior planner for the city of Torrance. "We haven't seen much work going on."
By now, the 6.3-acre site - which includes almost six acres on the north side of the street adjacent to the refinery, and a half-acre to the south - should be an oasis of natural habitat modeled on city-owned Madrona Marsh.
Plans show that the company envisions dotting the property with five vernal pools, three tree species and a dozen types of native California shrubs and plants. A 6-foot-high fence would prevent public access to the parkland.
"Our challenge was how do we make something look like a conservation area for the community, rather than just a vacant lot?" refinery spokesman Patrick B.
But the site, on Del Amo just west of Van Ness Avenue, appears empty and abandoned.
ExxonMobil officials were reluctant to explain why. After the newspaper made an inquiry, it took four days for company officials to release a three-sentence statement.
"The Del Amo landscaping project was originally projected for completion in fall 2012, however, there were unexpected delays that have resulted in an anticipated completion target date of spring 2013," spokesman Daymond Rice wrote in an email. "As examples, delays occurred as large dust barriers were put up to catch additional debris and dust from flying into the neighborhood due to the removal of concrete pads from the existing homes.
"Further, the work to install sidewalks along the entire length of the street adjacent to the demolition area took longer than anticipated."
Rice did not address why the initial contractor quit, or whether additional contamination was discovered on the lots and caused delays.
While the source of the contamination was never conclusively established, state environmental officials suspected it came from a massive plume of contaminated groundwater that reaches all the way from the refinery to the American Honda headquarters near Old Torrance.
It's suspected the groundwater emitted "off-gassing" vapors, including potentially carcinogenic substances such as benzene and methane, that traveled up through the soil and were found in levels exceeding state standards on some lots.
The company regularly mails a newsletter to city residents extolling its commitment to safety and stewardship of the environment. But residents of the low-income, largely Latino neighborhood adjacent to the refinery commonly known as "La Rana" complained the company had dragged its feet in taking financial responsibility for the environmental concerns.
"Everybody is happy they're going to (landscape the lots) because they didn't want it to stay like an open field," Irene Ordaz, who had lived in the neighborhood since 1944, told the Daily Breeze in August 2011.
In September 2008, homeowners complained to the Breeze that while the owners of the most severely affected lots received compensation - and others were offered price protection programs guaranteeing market prices for their property if they chose to sell within five years - the rest were left to deal with the reduced values of their land.
Real estate agents were reluctant to accept listings, while potential buyers balked, given the contamination in the neighborhood.
The 750-acre refinery, which began operations in 1929, contributed more than $33 million in taxes in 2009, the most recent year data is available. It produces about 10 percent of the gasoline refined in the state.
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