The Carson City Council this week took the unusual step of declaring a “condition of local emergency” over toxic contamination in the Carousel housing tract which sits above an abandoned Shell Oil tank farm. City officials want the oil giant to either completely clean up the site, buy and tear down the homes, or provide monetary restitution to homeowners.
Residents north of Lomita Boulevard between Avalon Boulevard and Main Street have reported since 2009 that benzene, methane and other raw petroleum byproducts have been seeping up through the concrete, caustic fumes have overwhelmed their interiors, fouled their water, made their pets sick and poisoned their gardens because of toxic materials left over after Shell sold the land in the late 1960s to the developer of the 285-home tract.
Soil tests as late as 2011 found already elevated amounts of poisonous chemicals have reached dangerous levels and continue to encroach within each residential parcel. In March, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board completed residential sampling and found that 93 percent of the homes were contaminated. In the spring of 2012, Shell undertook a pilot program to replace topsoil with fresh dirt at 10 homes, but attorneys for the homeowners contend that the multinational firm stalled cleanup activities when it demanded proof from homeowners that indoor air was being polluted by leftover protochemicals.
“It is high time the city forces Shell’s hand,” said environmental activist Erin Brokovich, who attended Monday evening’s Council meeting. “How long should the residents wait for Shell to take responsibility? Do they have to wait for more people to become ill . . . for more children to be sickened? There is a considerable risk factor here for a deadly explosion.”
The majority vote prompted raucous applause from the overflow crowd, a possible watershed moment for residents who filed a lawsuit last year against Shell. Some of the plaintiffs are the original owners of the ranch-style homes built when the city was incorporated in 1968. Two years ago, Shell requested the city inform residents to limit their contact with the soil, not to grow or eat fruit and vegetables on their land and to even consider moving.
“The city of Carson is in this battle, and we’re in the battle to win,” said Carson Mayor Jim Dear. “People have asked, ‘Mayor Dear when is the city going to help us? How long will we have to tolerate this?’ The action tonight will let our residents know that we fully intend to hold Shell accountable.”
Shell was ordered in 2011 by the water control board, the agency overseeing the process, to clean up the site, but the company reported it detected no contaminants and that they would not have a plan for remedy until 2014. Shell officials said Monday that methane gas poses no safety hazard to the neighborhood, despite its high concentrations in the soil, and emphasized that regulators have found “no imminent health risk” in the community. Shell spokesman Alan Caldwell said the firm was “disappointed” that the city declared an emergency, saying the vote won’t solve anything.
“We have always been in favor of expediting the testing and cleanup process, as we take the protection of Carousel residents and the environment seriously,” Caldwell said.
Though the Council vote has no legal standing to sway Shell’s future action, it does allow for Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials to demand an immediate cleanup. Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes said residents have reached a tipping point in the ongoing battle to restore their quality of life. “When someone tells me they can’t allow their children to play in the soil, you don’t have to do anymore testing for me,” she said. “You’re telling us to tell our residents that their children can’t go outside? That’s why people buy homes.”
Capitol Hill has taken notice as well. In a statement, Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-44) announced her support of the city’s action, calling the situation “shameful.”
“Families deserve to live in an environment where the quality of air in their homes is breathable, water in their pipes potable, and soil in their yard places no restrictions on their children’s, grandchildren’s or even their pet’s play.”