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Legacy Pollution


In Carson, California, Shell Oil used to have an oil tank farm. Then, thanks to America’s lax environmental regulatory state, a housing development was built on top of it when Shell no longer needed it. Shell claims the land is safe and they have no responsibility for it. Residents say their soil is poisonous. Soil tests taken five years ago show elevated levels of benzene and petroleum. Residents claim an array of health problems The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board has ordered Shell to clean up the soil, but there is significant debate over whether to clean it up right now as an emergency or do the necessary testing that would delay the cleanup for a year. Shell is unhappy.

A dark side of southern California’s landscape is the legacy of nearly a century of oil production. You don’t always see that legacy, but it’s there. It became famous during the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that spawned an array of environmental legislation, but the roots go back to the early 20th century, as does local resistance to it. Too often, corporations get away with improper cleanup, leaving a legacy of pollution for residents, often the poor who can afford to buy houses in a ecologically degraded neighborhood.

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  • Derelict

    This is just one many tens of thousands of ticking time bombs, larger and smaller, all over the country. Before there were any environmental laws or standards, the standard way to deal with unwanted liquids was to just pour them out on the ground “out back.”

    Where I live (in a rural part of the Northeast), we regularly find large areas of contaminated soil.The contaminants are typically soaked gasoline and/or used motor oil, but there have been finds of pesticides, carbon-tet (from abandoned dry cleaners), PCBs, and a smorgasbord of heavy metals and solvents. The companies or individuals responsible usually have long since shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving present-day taxpayers and property owners on the hook for clean-up.

    • Josh G.

      This is just one many tens of thousands of ticking time bombs, larger and smaller, all over the country. Before there were any environmental laws or standards, the standard way to deal with unwanted liquids was to just pour them out on the ground ‘out back.’

      A while back I looked up a list of Superfund sites, and on a whim, checked those for Pennsylvania, where I grew up. It was jaw-dropping: the entire state is jam packed with these things. Everything from old factories to junkyards to landfills to polluted wells to situations where someone just dropped chemical-laden drums on someone’s land in the middle of the night.
      Even my beloved childhood Commodore 64 was built in a factory (MOS Technologies) that is now on the Superfund list. (Of course, modern electronics manufacturing probably isn’t much cleaner, it is just done overseas instead).

  • AcademicLurker

    …a housing development was built on top of it when Shell no longer needed it.

    Wasn’t this the plot of The Two Jakes?

    • Just Dropping By

      Answering that question would require admitting having seen The Two Jakes, and who is going to do that?

      • Ann Outhouse

        Wikipedia, fortunately, is the Cliff’s Notes of bad movies.


        • Lee Rudolph

          Two jakes beats one outhouse, at least.

        • Just Dropping By

          Yeah, but that just says the real estate developer’s murder “connects with California’s booming oil industry,” not whether it concerns a housing project built on an abandoned tank farm.

          • AcademicLurker

            I seem to recall a scene where Jake is visiting a new tract housing development, lights a cigarette, and causes an explosion due to fumes from the oil (or maybe natural gas?) deposits under the houses.

            • Informant

              Ah, that finally explains the scene with Nicholson being blasted through the air that was used in all the trailers and TV ads I recall!

  • Linnaeus

    One of the things I don’t like about my job is having to listen to our clients complain about environmental regulatory agencies. To an extent, I can understand it, because the regulatory regime can be complex and they do sometimes get conflicting information from regulators. That said, in the end, the idea is to help prevent stuff like this. A few of our clients are near heavily polluted areas. There’s a reason for that.

  • bluefoot

    I once worked at a company that (among other things) analyzed water and soil samples for contaminants. It was pretty sobering what can be found all over the Northeast. I particularly recall one contract to analyze a site previously owned by a company where things (oils, heavy metals, solvents, etc etc) were oozing into the groundwater. The company’s records were conveniently stolen shortly before their court date to force them to clean the site.

    I grew up not that far from Love Canal. This kind of thing is so depressingly familiar.

    • DrDick

      This is true in any major city which goes back very far, especially if it had a major industrial base. Chicago is riddled with toxic neighborhoods that are the legacy of abandoned factories (guess who lives there).

      • hicks

        Although we will all either kill ourselves, die in a fiery car crash, or be torn to bits by machinery at least we don’t have to worry about our offspring becoming mutants.

        • joe from Lowell

          Yeah but Lyme Disease.

          Nobody ever got Lyme Disease walking through the Acre.

          • Lee Rudolph

            Is it too late to enter “Tickopalypse” in the contest?

            Giant Megafund-mutated ticks, stalking the old mill towns!

          • hicks

            Sure, put you could have picked up spanakopita.

  • BigHank53

    For a big chuckle, google acetone plumes map. Marvel at the 5,680,000 results. Scroll through a few dozen pages and notice how many of them are unique PDFs.

    And that’s one solvent. Toluene, benzene, methyl ethyl ketone, carbon tetrachloride…

    • Herbal Infusion Bagger

      As someone who used to work on cleaning up Superfund sites, acetone’s not usually a big concern for groundwater pollution. If you can keep the dissolved oxygen in the aquifer high enough, the bacteria in the soil chew up the . Same for most petroleum components – if you dig out the grossly contaminated soil, and aerate the remainding soil or sparge the aquifer with air, most lighter hydrocarbons degrade pretty readily. (In the mid-1990s, this led to a downsizing in the environmental cleanup industry because it was realized that most hydrocarbon groundwater contamination could be treated pretty easily with a few simple technologies.)

      The oxygenated compounds like acetone degrade even faster (with the exception of ethers like MTBE. There were relatively easy techniques for remediating this site available even in the late 1980s, which evidently weren’t used.

      Chlorinated solvents are a massive pain in the ass, if more technically challenging interesting. At least as of fifteen years ago, there were no good solutions except to dig up the soil, landfill it, and pump-and-treat the contaminated groundwater, umm, forever.

  • bexley

    Legacy pollution

    Bush the lesser attending Yale?

    • ChrisTS


  • DrDick

    This is a big problem here in the Northern Rockies, where we live with the deadly consequences of over a century of hard rock mining, which has poisoned our streams and soil. It is further complicated by the fact that companies have merged, split, been sold so many times that it can be a nightmare even chasing down who is legally responsible.

    • Ann Outhouse

      You don’t suppose they do that deliberately.


      • DrDick

        At least in the case of the upper Clark Fork River (the river that runs through it in the novel and film), very definitely and there are other examples from Superfund sites here.

  • howard

    when you look at photos of certain sections of los angeles during the ’20s and ’30s, it is staggering how many oil wells there were (this of course comes up in the plot of the big sleep).

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      Rusty Regan appreciates being remembered

      also, too, Doghouse Reilly (how Chandler spelled it)

    • Josh G.

      There still are working oil rigs in Los Angeles. They’re just disguised as something else to avoid attention.

      • In my slice of socal, they are building a nice new development on what use to be an oil field. Why yes, it is for low income housing, how did you know?

        • heckblazer

          It’s not even just the poor neighborhoods. Ritzy Hancock Park was named after George Allen Hancock, the guy who owned all the oil wells there before they turned it into housing. When I lived there as a kid c. 30 years ago my parents got monthly royalty checks for the mineral rights under the house. I’m also aware of at least three active wells in Beverly Hills, including one on the grounds of Beverly Hills High School and one behind the Beverly Center, the mall that’s across the street from Cedars-Sinai.

  • ChrisTS

    I don’t understand why Shell is saying that methane is not dangerous. (1) I’m pretty sure it is. (2) The inhabitants are not complaining about just methane – there’s also, you know, good ole’ benzene and other fun stuff.

    • joe from Lowell

      They’re not saying that methane isn’t dangerous, but that the materials are buried in the soil and people are unlikely to be exposed at significant levels over the short term.

      “Don’t eat vegetables grown in your yard,” suggests that that’s not true.

      • Herbal Infusion Bagger

        Not dangerous as long as it’s below the lower explosive limit, which is 5%. Most of the methane will have off-gassed over 23 years.

        Also, methane is odorless – mercaptans are added to natural gas to make it smell. Whatever’s causing the smells, it’s not methane.

      • ChrisTS

        So much for a swimming pool. Or a goldfish pond.

    • anthrofred

      It may/may not be applicable in this case, but “just” methane emissions can cause serious quality-of-life and land value issues – no one likes foul-smelling gas eruptions. One of my frustrations with metric oriented approaches to environmental contaminants is that the social and cultural impact of “non-toxic” chemicals and chemicals at “non-toxic” levels gets pushed to the margins.

      • FMguru

        LA sits on a lot of natural near-surface oil and ooze and tar (as the well-preserved skeletons of mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers in the La Brea museum can attest), and neighborhood blocks and sewage systems used to have a nasty tendency to catch fire or explode from time to time, until they finally got around to putting in methane venting towers and such. The constant seismic activity shakes it to the top and then a department store explodes.

        All the oil and gas extraction and pollution makes it a hundred times worse, but LA was kind of a toxic place to live even in pre-industrial times.

        Essentially, God hates LA and the earth itself never stops trying to kill its inhabitants.

        • Cody

          Else it’s a test to see how much trouble people will go through for a lot of sunshine…

          Kind of like southern Arizona. Sunny 364 days a year! Also terribly hot and desolate!

    • Trollhattan

      Yup, the presence of benzene should be enough to set off the alarms that go to 11.

      Long-term health effects of exposure to benzene
      •The major effect of benzene from long-term exposure is on the blood. (Long-term exposure means exposure of a year or more.) Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection.
      •Some women who breathed high levels of benzene for many months had irregular menstrual periods and a decrease in the size of their ovaries. It is not known whether benzene exposure affects the developing fetus in pregnant women or fertility in men.
      •Animal studies have shown low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathed benzene.
      •The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, cancer of the blood-forming organs.

      Source: CDC

  • Ian

    A dark side of southern California’s landscape is the legacy of nearly a century of oil production.

    Not just legacy, of course. There’s still plenty of pumping going on within the megapolis, sometimes in surprisingly posh areas–next to the beach in Huntington Beach, for example. The LA Times had an article earlier this month saying that oil drilling is likely to return to the South Bay communities (Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, etc.).

    • Ann Outhouse

      It can happen in small towns, too.

      In 1955, my parents bought an abandoned lot in Newark, NY (not to be confused with Newark, NJ) to build a house on. The population at the time was about 10,000.

      This lot was smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

      Until the excavators started turning up old paint buckets and oil cans and rusty old drums of who knows what. And I don’t mean a few. At some point it had to have been a dump for industrial waste.

      There was no EPA back then, so I have no idea where this stuff got dumped. Probably in someone else’s back yard.

      My parents were going to put in a full basement, but after seeing the shit that was dug up, they filled in the hole and put down a slab.

      • ChrisTS

        Many years back, we put in a small pool. They only went down 7′ at the longest end. Among the things that got dug up were a tiny headstone with initials on it and the skull of an infant.

        Not dangerous, but definitely creepy.

        • DrDick

          A local elementary school is built on the site of the cemetery for the old county poor house. Not all of the graves were moved before construction (contrary to state and local law).

          • ChrisTS

            Jesus. In our case, it’s a very old farm (1700’s), so we are hoping that it was just the one grave. Or, that all the others are out in the meadow we never dig up.

        • UberMitch

          Presumably you live in a housing tract developed by Craig T. Nelson.

  • MD Rackham

    My wife grew up in Carson next to that tank farm, prior to it being redeveloped as housing.

    Her house was built on an old landfill (garbage dump) and everyone knew not to dig too deep in their yard so as to avoid running into the “black mayonnaise.”

    Who knows what she was exposed to?

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