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Carson residents protest Shell Oil over soil contamination [Updated]

October 23, 2010 |  6:36 pm

Residents, activists and city leaders in Carson took to the streets Saturday to protest of Shell Oil Co.’s refusal to take responsibility for the contamination of a tract in the Carousel neighborhood, where high levels of benzene and methane have been found in the ground.

More than 200 people -- led by environmental activist Erin Brockovich -- marched to the company’s oil refinery at the intersection of Wilmington Avenue and Dominguez Street. Council members Lulu Davis-Holmes and Mike Gipson joined residents at the protest.

Standing at the entrance of the refinery, residents used a bullhorn to call on the company to accept responsibility for contaminating their neighborhood. Other protestors held up signs that read “Shame on Shell” and banners that read “Carousel contaminated.”

Organizers say the oil company is trying to avoid responsibility for contamination of the Carousel neighborhood by claiming statute of repose, a law that cuts off certain legal rights after a set amount of time has passed.

But Shell spokeswoman Alison Chassin said the company was not claiming statute of repose. "We are conducting an environmental investigation, and our actions clearly indicate something else," she said.

[Updated at 7:36 p.m.: Chassin clarified her earlier remarks, saying that the company was not dragging its feet in response to the concerns of the residents of the affected neighborhood and that she could not comment on the statute of repose because of ongoing litigation.]

The company has taken 190 soil and vapor soil samples at the 285 affected homes, Chassin said. "None of the regulatory agencies overseeing the investigation have suggested that there's imminent health risks to the residents at this point."

Shell's environmental investigation is being overseen by government agencies including the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

"It's important to also note that in the historical documents, we sold the property as is to the developer," Chassin said. "The developer at the time took responsibility to demolish and clean up the site."

A homeowner lawsuit was filed against Shell about a year ago, said Barbara Post, 74, a longtime resident and organizer of Saturday's march and rally.

The suit alleges that Shell found significant levels of benzene at 66 of 73 locations it drilled, mostly streets and other public areas. According to the homeowners' lawyer, the cancer risk exceeds the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s level of a risk by a factor of 1,400. At the high level, he said in a letter to the water board, 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.

The contamination at the Carousel neighborhood tract was discovered more than two years ago, when the state Department of Toxic Substances Control was investigating the site of an old chemical plant west of the small neighborhood. Workers there found benzene and petroleum in the soil and groundwater but concluded that they were coming from somewhere else. The chemicals were then traced to the 50-acre site, where the neighborhood sits.

That land was owned and operated by Shell from 1924 to 1966 and hosted three crude oil reservoirs. The reservoirs were demolished and the land was sold around the mid-1960s, records show. It was developed into a single-family residential neighborhood around 1970.

“Shell is not cooperating. They won’t take responsibility,” she said. “They’re playing a chess game with our lives.”

Post said that until recently, most residents were unaware that their neighborhood was sitting on top of a former crude oil reservoir.

She said they feel trapped because their homes no longer have value and therefore they cannot sell them. “We would all like to pick up and leave, but we can’t,” Post said. “We’re in fear. We don’t know who’s going to be next, who’s going to be sick, or dead.”

-- Ruben Vives

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