Carson is on the verge of declaring a local emergency to spur more rapid cleanup of its environmentally contaminated Carousel housing tract, which sits on a former oil tank farm that left untold amounts of petroleum just a few feet below the neighborhood's 285 homes.

The city filed a claim for damages this week in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging that Shell Oil Co. is trespassing and creating a public nuisance that is causing injury. On Thursday night, council members told staff to prepare an emergency resolution seeking immediate remediation of the problem.

Residents of the Carousel tract and the city of Carson have filed a legal complaint against Shell Oil Co. for pollution in the 50-acre neighborhood. Many
Residents of the Carousel tract and the city of Carson have filed a legal complaint against Shell Oil Co. for pollution in the 50-acre neighborhood. Many residents of the tract have signs in front of their homes to show their solidarity. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

"Five years is long enough," Councilman Mike Gipson said. "The people of Carousel tract need some answers now. When will this be resolved? And how? No one is answering that. Everyone is passing the buck while people's lives are hanging in the balance. It's not fair."

It isn't clear how the regulatory agency overseeing the cleanup -- the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board -- will respond to Carson's declaration. Officials have known about the problem for five years and, as it stands now, actual cleanup won't begin until next year at the earliest.


Advertisement

"It's really expressing the city's concern about the state of the current environmental investigation," Carson Planning Officer Sheri Repp-Loadsman said. "We're looking at the best ways to use the (local emergency) resolution as a tool."

The council will consider adopting the emergency resolution at or before its Aug. 6 meeting, Repp-Loadsman said.

Two years ago, the regional water board ordered Shell to clean the soil to a depth of 10 feet below the residential community. Since then, the company has conducted extensive testing inside homes and below ground to determine whether the oil is turning into hazardous vapors.

No one disputes that cancer-causing benzene, explosive methane and other hazardous compounds are present in the abandoned oil waste. But while Shell's testers argue the chemicals don't pose major health risks, residents and the investigators representing them say that people and pets have become sick and died from a spectrum of illnesses as a result of living in the community.

Residents of the Carousel tract and the city of Carson have filed a legal complaint against Shell Oil Co. for pollution in the 50-acre neighborhood.
Residents of the Carousel tract and the city of Carson have filed a legal complaint against Shell Oil Co. for pollution in the 50-acre neighborhood. Children play on Marbella Avenue near home with sign indicating the toxic nature of the neighborhood. (Robert Casillas / Staff Photographer)

The oil was discovered during soil testing in 2008 near the 50-acre community on the city's southernmost boundary, near Wilmington. Soon after it was found, Shell investigators began tests to determine how bad the contamination was.

The crude stems from the tank farm that occupied the land from the 1920s through 1966, when construction began on the Carousel tract. Shell used the area to store crude oil and, when the company vacated the property, it demolished oil reservoirs and left the rubble and waste petroleum in the ground. Though the tanks reached a below-ground depth of roughly 10 feet, the oil has leaked at least 50 feet below ground, investigators said.

Since 2008, residents have been warned not to let their children play in backyards. Rigorous testing has temporarily displaced homeowners while investigators take over their homes to test the air quality and sub-slab vapors. In the past year, Shell's pilot tests have dug up front yards, exposing smelly, oil-soaked soil. The water board has required Shell to submit a so-called Remedial Action Plan by the end of this year to outline the steps it will take to clean the soil and its time line. The actual cleanup is scheduled to begin once the water board approves that plan.

However, attorneys representing the residents and the city argue that Shell's tentative plan to clean soil to a depth of 10 feet below some homes -- and only on land that isn't developed -- is extremely flawed.

The July 16 complaint was filed on behalf of the city by Girardi and Keese, the same law firm representing residents suing Shell. Girardi and Keese and its investigator, Erin Brockovich, battled PG&E in a contamination case involving the desert town of Hinkley, Calif., that was dramatized in a 2000 feature film.

The complaint demands "full and total abatement of the contamination down to approximately 40 feet below the Carousel neighborhood."

Bob Finnerty, an attorney with Girardi and Keese, said several complaints have already been filed on behalf of 1,008 clients who say they have been physically and financially harmed by living in the neighborhood.

"The soil is contaminated down to 50 feet," Finnerty said. "The water board is exploring the removal of 10 feet to determine whether or not that would be sufficient. The reality is that would be a simple Band-Aid procedure and, in a few years, residents would have the identical problem of vapor intrusion into their homes."

sandy.mazza@dailybreeze.com

@sandymazza on Twitter