Crude Attitude

Residents pressure city to test for contamination at former Chevron site

Photo by Tenaya HillsJohn Sisker really likes mobile homes. He's lived in the Pacific Mobile Home Park in Huntington Beach for 45 years, ever since his parents moved there in 1958. After a tour in the U.S. Navy, Sisker returned to Huntington Beach and bought his own mobile home just a short walk from his parents' place. His mother still lives in the park, and Sisker, who makes his living selling mobile homes, says he has no plans to move.

"I was here when the park was it around here," Sisker said. "There was nothing else around here—just oil wells everywhere."

But the Pacific Mobile Home Park's days may be numbered. Last year, Huntington Beach officials announced a plan to build more than 500 condominiums, a hotel and several stores on a vacant lot adjacent to the mobile-home park. The lot, which used to house the Huntington Shores hotel and the Grinder restaurant, is just north of the Hyatt Regency hotel and is part of the city's redevelopment district.

City officials insist they have no plans to raze the park. But Sisker and his Pacific City Action Coalition, which represents residents who could be affected by the Pacific City redevelopment project, are still worried. They assert that city officials are blocking their efforts to get an independent study to determine whether the adjacent lot's soil is contaminated with hazardous chemicals left over from decades-old Chevron Oil Co. operations.

Previous studies submitted on the site—as part of the developer's environmental-impact report (EIR)—have all relied on data supplied by Chevron. But Sisker argues that the city shouldn't rely on the company responsible for polluting the land with petroleum and other hazardous chemicals to determine whether the soil is contaminated.

His concern about the vacant lot next door isn't new. In 1990, when the Robert Mayers Corp. built the nearby Hilton hotel along Pacific Coast Highway, the developer used the vacant lot adjacent to the park to store dirt. "They put up signs that said the dirt may cause cancer," Sisker said. "But they never watered it down, and all this dust contaminated with oil blew all over here."

Sisker and other mobile-home-park residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the Robert Mayers Corp., alleging the company violated the South Coast Air Quality Management District dust-control guidelines. The developer settled the suit for $100,000.

Meanwhile, several mobile-home-park residents were diagnosed with cancer, including Sylvia Carr, a member of the Pacific City Action Coalition. "I have cervical cancer, but I'm in remission," she said. "The woman next door has cancer. So do her next-door neighbor and my mother. We all have cancer. There are five or six other people on that side of the park who live within 20 feet of a former oil well. They all have cancer, but they don't want to join the group because they don't want to cause a panic."

"I have cancer, too," Sisker said. "But it's skin cancer. We have to be very careful not to say every cancer comes from soil contamination."

Last year, Sisker, Carr and other residents found out about the city's plans to develop the lot. "Our main concern was what would happen to the mobile-home park," Sisker said. "The residents don't want to move, and people don't know whether to upgrade their homes. Then we found out that the developer and Chevron wanted an exemption not to clean up the site and that they called a guy on the water board to sign off on that."

Sisker was referring to Kamron Saremi, a water-resources control engineer for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. On Sept. 4, 2003, Saremi signed a declaration alleging that a consultant for Chevron asked him to greenlight their soil-assessment study for the site. Saremi's declaration states that he told Chevron to perform "additional groundwater investigation in the area of the impacted soil" for a more detailed report to his agency. Approximately two weeks later, Saremi asserted, Chevron staff told him they no longer needed his help and that any new tests would be done under the city's supervision.

"The bottom line is we want the developer to do a new study—one that is not done by Chevron," Sisker said. "The City Council wants the development at any cost because they need the tax base. We're just a little group of citizens, and they think we're overreacting."

Councilwoman Connie Boardman countered that the city is still testing the soil at the site and that Huntington Beach's fire and public-works departments have been cooperating with the Pacific City Action Coalition in trying to locate past soil studies there.

"I have no reason not to trust the soils reports," added councilwoman Debbie Cook. "But if the homeowners want to pay for one themselves—assuming Chevron would allow [it]—I would have no problem with that."

City Planning Commissioner Bob Dingwall said soil contamination is a serious issue that deserves close scrutiny.

"Their major complaints have been about contaminated soil," Dingwall said. "And for that, Chevron is, as I understand it, the party responsible. I've been on the record saying that they brought those deadly substances here. They should be the ones to take them away."

The city is scheduled to hold public hearings on the Pacific City project beginning in late February.

 
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