Gulf Oil Spill: Two Months and Counting. Seal Beach Leak: 25 Years and Counting

The BP/ARCO vapor pump at the gas station on Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach pulls fumes from under the ground. It's adjacent to the Bridgeport neighborhood (right). Photo by: Tracy Wood.

The BP/ARCO vapor pump at the gas station on Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach pulls fumes from under the ground. It's adjacent to the Bridgeport neighborhood (right). Photo by: Tracy Wood.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010 | It’s just a single BP/ARCO gas station in Seal Beach, but the three-decade effort to clean up after a gasoline leak there may offer lessons for officials and residents dealing with the massive BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

“The community is very frustrated,” said Mario Iacoboni, a resident of Seal Beach’s Bridgeport neighborhood, which is adjacent to BP’s ARCO gas station. “We’re feeling that we’re being left to sit here and wait for an answer that they’re (BP) being pushed into a corner (to make). Why do these companies have to be pushed into a corner” before taking action?

Orange County health officials as well as state water regulators and Seal Beach administrators earlier this year rejected a BP cleanup plan and said contaminated dirt under the gas station at Fifth Street and Pacific Coast Highway should be dug up and hauled away.

The company has a June 19 deadline to submit its plan for cleansing the contaminated site. But as recently as a May 26 meeting, according to residents, BP officials declined to commit to “dig and haul.” It is more expensive than alternatives that BP has previously proposed.

Plans to remedy the impact of the gasoline leak date at least to the mid-1990s, well before BP bought ARCO in 2000.

Cleanup History

A review of the past five years of county reports and those of BP consultants show continual, unsuccessful efforts to rid the soil and water under the station of pollution from gasoline and dangerous associated chemicals, like benzene.

In late 2009, fumes from the old leak moved into the adjacent Bridgeport neighborhood, forcing the temporary evacuation of three homes.

A machine installed at the side of the gas station now draws the fumes from the ground, but water still is an issue with the city, county and state.

BP/ARCO has been submitting Corrective Action Plans since at least 2005. According to a history of the problem contained in the May 4, 2005, plan (see PDF in the Related Documents section of this report), earlier that year the county requested a “final” plan of action for cleaning up the site.

The company history also said a leak first was suspected on the site in September 1986 when “ARCO service station personnel noted discrepancies in their inventory records, suggesting possible product loss.”

Underground tanks and other equipment were replaced and some contaminated groundwater was pumped out and carted away. In the ensuing years there were more tests, more indications of continued contamination and more attempts at “remediation.”

Yet each time ARCO, and later BP, argued to county officials that the problem was solved and sought to close the case, contamination continued to show up in monitoring tests.

For example, according to the 2005 BP report, in 1998 the county Health Care Agency said the site “was not eligible for closure” because of soil and groundwater contamination.

In 2004 — according a report prepared this year by Stantek, an environmental advisor to BP — efforts were made to dig out contaminated soil, but “due to elevated vapor concentrations,” the full excavation could not be completed, and the source of the vapor apparently was left in the ground.

A spokesperson for the federal Environmental Protection Agency said that as of March this year, there are about 96,000 leaks from underground storage tanks across the country that have not yet been cleaned up.

Corporate Cleanup

BP’s problem in the Gulf of Mexico “makes us look like peanuts,” said Bill Johnson, who lives doors away from one of the three homes that were evacuated late last year because fumes from the old gas leak began seeping into houses.

Johnson said he knew there was a soil contamination problem when he bought his Galleon Way home about five months ago, but “we came in here with the expectation that any oil company’s going to clean up their mess.”

The BP spokesman who has been dealing with the local issue could not be reached for comment Thursday. His voicemail said he was temporarily re-assigned to the Gulf cleanup effort.

The April 20 explosion of the deep-water rig and the resulting leak of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf is the United States’ worst environmental disaster.

BP officials promised President Barack Obama on Wednesday that they would create a $20 billion fund to pay for the cleanup.

“We want to make sure they’re going to go in and take care of the material that was left on site (in Seal Beach),” said Iacoboni, one of several environmental cleanup professionals who live in Seal Beach and have volunteered to advise the city.

Residents have begun picketing the gas station on Saturdays to draw attention to the issue and plan their next demonstration for July 3, if BP’s new remediation plan fails to include digging out the contaminated soil and hauling it away.

“If we’re happy with it (BP’s response),” Iacoboni said, “we’ll call it off.”

Gulf officials and residents, he noted, have been waiting 60 days for the giant oil spill to be completely stopped and the damage cleaned up. “We’ve been waiting 25 years.”

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