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Controversial toxic dump cleanup to resume in Huntington Beach

Nearly two years after outraged neighbors forced cleanup efforts to stop at a long-closed Ascon toxic dump in Huntington Beach, regulators are preparing to resume work and will face those residents again at an online meeting Thursday, May 6, to explain the upgraded plan.

Throughout the spring of 2019, residents increasingly complained of dust and smelly fumes coming from the 38-acre state Superfund site, which is immediately adjacent to homes, Edison High School and Edison Park. Their anger came to a head at a June 2019 community meeting called by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to discuss the controversy.

The agency’s air monitoring reports showed that with the exception of three brief, minor instances, toxins and dust leaving the site were within healthy levels. But at the meeting attended by some 300 neighbors, there were unrelenting accounts of respiratory problems, headaches and rashes, and concerns about the long-term effects of the toxic dust and fumes.

Additionally, a petition calling for the work to be halted garnered about 2,500 signatures. By the end of the 2-hour meeting — in which regulators were regularly shouted down by the sometimes raucous crowd — the agency agreed to halt the cleanup until 10 new conditions were met.

“The (air monitoring) numbers say one thing but you say another,” agency branch chief Javier Hinojosa told the audience at Edison High School. “So, we’re responding to that.”

Agency Deputy Director Grant Cope went farther, saying, “The way this cleanup is being done is broken. It’s our responsibility to fix it.”

In resuming work, the new cleanup plan addresses only “Pit F,” a 45-square-foot portion considered the most toxic location on the site. Several neighbors who’ve been participating in monthly online meetings with the Department of Toxic Substances Control praised the agency’s responsiveness.

“We believe DTSC is trying their hardest,” said Nancy Buchoz, who lives about 50 yards from Pit F. “They have been a game changer.”

But some also said they wanted more information distributed to residents so their neighbors can better understand risks involved, questioned whether toxins have migrated farther than indicated, expressed concern about a potential fire hazard and complained that the agency only changed course after widespread community outrage.

History of toxins

The landfill was privately operated from 1938 to 1984, receiving industrial, oil field and construction waste. The site, at the corner of Magnolia Street and Hamilton Avenue, is near the AES power plant and within view of the ocean a half mile away.

The presence of toxins in the soil is widely acknowledged, including large signs on the surrounding fence warning of lead, arsenic and nickel. In 2003, an agreement for cleaning up the site was reached with the owners, and a cleanup plan was approved in 2015.

The final stage of that work began in January 2019, with some waste consolidated in the central portion of the site and the rest removed to a toxic dump. Work was halted in June 2019. Once the cleanup is completed, grass will be planted and the area will be a private green space without further development, according to Hinojosa.

But while the goal is to minimize long-term environmental and health hazards at the site, it was the 2019 cleanup itself that raised new alarms among neighbors.

Measures implemented since work was stopped include increasing the height of the dust-blocking fence surround the site from 6 feet to 16 feet and adding six air monitors in the surrounding neighborhood. Work tentatively scheduled to resume in early June reflects new precautions promised by the toxic substances agency and is intended to prevent dust and fumes from leaving the site.

Pit F contains viscous wastes generated from the production of the carcinogen styrene, and the cleanup there will take two to three months, according to the April “community update” sent by the agency to neighbors. That location has already been tented to minimize toxins and odors from migrating to the neighborhood during the work, and a filter will remove toxins from the air inside the tent.

Within the tent, toxic sludge and dirt will be loaded into lined bins that will be sealed, inspected and loaded onto haul trucks, which will transport the waste to a landfill designed for such toxins, according to information sent to neighbors.

Lingering concerns

Neighbors Buchoz and Sharon Messick praised the new cleanup plan, with Messick saying in a phone interview that Deputy Director Cope has been “like a hero.” But in a follow-up email, they expressed lingering concerns.

They believe this type of cleanup is unprecedented and that should be clearly communicated with residents. They also presented records they say show there are at least nine toxins beside styrene that are carcinogens listed by the state EPA. While agency documents sent to neighbors mention styrene, Buchoz and Messick say they agency should let residents know about the others along with the impacts they could have.

Pit F cleanup is expected to capture at least 95% of the emissions, according to the agency. But some neighbors question how toxic the remaining 5% might be.

Agency spokesperson Gamaliel Ortiz said Thursday’s meeting is intended to address concerns not already detailed in documents sent to neighbors, and defended the thoroughness of the plan.

“While the makeup of materials in Pit F may be unique, the safe removal and transportation of viscous hazardous materials is a fairly common practice,” he said. “The remedial team in place has conducted work of this type, using specialized equipment in confined spaces to remove a range of waste materials in various cleanup actions around the country.”

Four neighbors interviewed by the Register are not intending to evacuate the area during the cleanup, but two said their plans could change.

“If anybody in my family have symptoms of exposure, we’re out of here,” said neighbor and biochemist Tara Barton, noting that several in her household had mysterious health problems in 2019.

Thursday’s Zoom meeting, in which comments and questions will be taken, can be viewed at at 6 p.m.

Source: Orange County Register

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