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Toxic Living: California Neighbors Sue After Finding Homes Were Built on Oil-Saturated Soil

“The lawsuit, filed in October against Shell, the developer and its subsequent owners, claims among other things that the companies were negligent in their treatment of the site and that they fraudulently concealed chemical hazards on the property.”

Experts Say Homeowners Exposed to Dangerous Levels of Benzene, Methane


By SARAH NETTER
CARSON, Calif. May 19, 2010

The tidy rows of hacienda-style homes in a pretty, well-manicured southern California neighborhood give little indication of the festering chemicals under the soil.

Carson Toxins

Adolfo Valdes, pictured with his 3-year-old daughter Alexa, no longer lets his daughters play outside after environmental experts found crude oil just feet under his front lawn.

(Sarah Netter/ABC News)
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Built on top of a long-forgotten crude oil storage site, the 285 homes in Carson’s Carousel neighborhood are now ground zero for an environmental and medical crisis that has pitted current and former homeowners, some of them cancer-stricken, in a massive lawsuit against Shell.

“I’m very angry. I’m angry that this could happen to our family or anyone else’s family,” longtime Carousel homeowner Royalene Fernandez said. “It has definitely ruined our lives and I don’t want it to ruin my kids’ lives or my grandchildren’s.”

Fernandez, 64, is terminally ill after having battled both leukemia and melanoma over the last 18 years. She said doctors in January gave her just six months to live, but she is pushing hard for a few final milestones — her 46th wedding anniversary in August chief among them.

Click HERE to see images from the Carousel neighborhood in Carson, Calif.

Benzene exposure has been linked to an increased risk for the type of leukemia Fernandez was diagnosed with– chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In the Carousel neighborhood, repeated testing has found benzene levels just a few feet under the soil at more than 1,000 times the acceptable limit, according to environmental experts hired by the plaintiffs and the county water board. “It was never disclosed that it was ever over any type of oil ground or that anything had been there,” said Fernandez, who bought her home on Panama Avenue in 1968 and lived there until 1999. “So of course you would not have bought if it had been disclosed.” In addition to the extraordinarily high benzene levels, the soil has also tested positive for dangerously high levels of methane, leading some environmental experts to fear a massive fireball at Carousel should the gasses ever make it to the surface.

The mayor of Carson said the contamination may be so bad that the entire neighborhood may have to be razed.

Houses were first developed on the site in the late 1960s after Shell sold the site it had operated since 1923. It wasn’t until 2008 that random testing discovered disturbing, and some would say alarming, levels of contamination in the ground beneath the homes.

Though Shell has not owned the land in decades, residents, their lawyers and city officials believe it is still the company’s responsibility to clean up what was left behind.

“The thing that was really compelling here was that Shell absolutely, positively without a doubt, knew they had this mess of tens of thousands of gallons, or millions of gallons, of very toxic material right under these houses,” attorney Tom Girardi said.

Carson Toxins

Royalene Fernandez, pictured with her husband Bernard Fernandez, is terminally ill. She was diagnosed in 1992 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a known side effect of benzene exposure. She was diagnosed with melanoma in January.

(Sarah Netter/ABC News)
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Contaminated California Neighborhood Wants Shell to Finance Cleanup

Girardi’s law firm, Los Angeles-based Girardi Keese Lawyers, represents the majority of the affected residents — more than 1,500 adults and children so far. Girardi may be best known for his work with Erin Brockovich on the chromium contamination case against Pacific Gas & Electric which was made into a movie, but he told ABC News that the Carson contamination is the worst his firm has ever handled.

“Everybody in life can make mistakes. The trick of what kind of a person you are is what you do after the mistake is made known to you,” Girardi said.

“Do you just sit there and just let other people get exposed to this chemical? Do you let more people come down with leukemia?” he asked. “Or do you say ‘My goodness, look what we did. We’re supposed to be a good corporation.'”

Shell, which still operates a refinery in Carson, declined several formal interview requests, but released a e-mail statement questioning not only the company’s role in the contamination, but whether or not the oil left behind is posing a serious health risk. “While Shell did not develop the property for residential use, Shell, as a good corporate citizen, has stepped up to the plate and commenced a state-of-the-art environmental investigation,” the statement read.

“The environmental agencies have stated that the data so far do not indicate any imminent health or safety risk to the public,” the Shell statement read.

Medical experts hired by Girardi Keese have just begun the arduous process of trying to determine whether there is a link between the toxic soil and some residents’ yearslong struggles with cancer, migraines, anemia, vertigo and birth defects.

Residents who once enjoyed community barbecues, parades, egg-throwing contests and holiday decorations now largely stay inside, afraid of their own lawns. They say their homes, many once valued around a half-million dollars, are now worthless.

The lawsuit, filed in October against Shell, the developer and its subsequent owners, claims among other things that the companies were negligent in their treatment of the site and that they fraudulently concealed chemical hazards on the property.

Girardi was careful not to attach a dollar amount to the suit, but environmental experts say the contamination could wind up costing the defendants hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup alone if they are found liable.

“It’s not about the money,” said resident and plaintiff Lourdes Piazza, whose Ravenna Avenue home tested positive for one of the highest concentrations of benzene in the neighborhood. “If I end up with cancer, if one of my family members ends up with cancer — money can’t buy your health.”

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