City Sues Shell Oil for Letting Developers Build on Top of Carcinogenic Tanks

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Residents in 285 homes in the Los Angeles County city of Carson would like someone to do something about the deep layer of crude-oil-soaked soil oozing benzene and methane and other toxic chemicals just a few feet beneath their houses.

A bunch of them filed a class-action suit against Shell Oil Co. and others in 2010, and were joined in the legal fray last week by Carson, itself.

At issue is a former Shell facility that occupied the property from 1924 to 1966. When Shell closed the 50-acre facility, it smashed to pieces three crude oil reservoir tanks, with a total capacity of 3.5 million barrels, and buried them under a few feet of dirt. The reservoirs were concrete-lined earth slopes with asbestos-composition-covered frame roofs.

Shortly after Shell sold the property, homes were built on it. But the underground toxic stew wasn’t discovered until 2008, when testing of a nearby manufacturing plant led back to the Carousel neighborhood. Testing immediately turned up high concentrations of benzene (a recognized carcinogen) and methane (a gas that poses a fire and explosion hazard)—and has continued since.

Four years later, the State Water Resources Control Board reports on Geotracker that, “A great deal of work remains to be done to fully characterize this site and to remove any chemicals that pose a potential threat to human health and the environment. After the environmental investigation is complete, the Regional Board will evaluate the risk to human health.”       

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Shell to clean up the mess last year, but Carson and its residents aren’t waiting. The city’s lawsuit accuses Shell and three successor companies of unjust enrichment, unfair business practices, public nuisance, inverse condemnation, strict liability, Health and Safety Code violations and negligence, and is asking for compensatory and punitive damages. The earlier lawsuit by the residents claimed, among other things, that the companies were negligent in their treatment of the site and that they concealed chemical hazards on the property.

Environmental experts say cleanup alone could cost Shell hundreds of millions of dollars if it were found liable.

Shell spokeswoman Kayla Macke told the Courthouse News Service the Carson lawsuit was unwarranted because they were working conscientiously with government authorities to fix the situation. She warned that litigation could slow the process of cleaning up Carousel.

Carson residents are represented by the law firm Girardi Keese, which worked on the pollution case portrayed in the movie “Erin Brockovich,” and employs its namesake as a consultant.

Shell still operates a refinery in Carson.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

City of Carson Takes on Shell Oil (by Matt Reynolds, Courthouse News Service)

Toxic Living: California Neighbors Sue after Finding Homes Were Built on Oil-Saturated Soil (by Sarah Netter, ABC News)

Former Shell Oil Site: Tests for Toxic Contamination under Homes in Carson (by Molly Peterson, KPCC)

Former Shell Oil Company Kast Property Tank Farm (State Water Resources Control Board’s Geotracker)

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