Picketers outside the Seal Beach BP/ARCO gas station over the Fourth of July weekend. Leaky underground storage tanks have contaminated the soil, and residents have tried for 25 years to get the site cleaned up. (Photo by: Kathleen O'Neill)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | The Orange County Health Care Agency on Tuesday ordered BP/ARCO to dig up contaminated soil under a Seal Beach gas station and haul it away, a directive that appears to end 25 years of debate over how to clean up the pollution.

“It’s a happy day,” said Mario Iacoboni, who lives in the neighborhood near the gas station and is a member of the city’s volunteer technical advisory committee.

“It’s no longer us begging them (BP/ARCO) to do things. They’ve been directed to do it.”

Last winter, three homes near the gas station at Pacific Coast Highway and Fifth Street were temporarily evacuated when fumes that originated from leaky underground storage tanks were detected in the houses.

The so-called dig and haul cleanup technique was strongly favored by Seal Beach city officials and residents of the Bridgeport neighborhood, which is separated by an alley from the gas station.

“We think it’s perfect,” said Seal Beach City Manager David Carmany. “We’re looking forward to the next step, which is getting that site cleaned up.”

Carmany said the reaction of neighbors most affected by the contamination also strongly contributed toward getting the result they all wanted.

In its letter to BP/ARCO officials, the county Health Care Agency agreed, saying it reviewed a cleanup plan proposed by the company and other technical information and determined that “given the criteria of certainty, timeliness, and effectiveness, excavation was the most appropriate to address the majority of the contaminated source area.”

A BP/ARCO spokesman said he could not comment until he’d had time to read and digest the report. Among the issues still pending is whether the gas station will be rebuilt after excavation or whether the station owners will be given another station somewhere else.

The cleanup ordered by the Health Care Agency gives BP/ARCO until Sept. 30 to begin obtaining the required permits and turn in a work plan.

The company is supposed to excavate contaminated soil until tests show the contamination is reduced to certain levels or the edges of the excavation reaches houses or other obstructions that require work to stop, according to the letter signed by Richard Sanchez, the county’s director of environmental health.

However, the letter states, contamination levels that allow digging to stop “should not be considered a final soil cleanup.” An overall assessment will be made to determine when work is complete.

In issuing its cleanup directive, the Health Care Agency rejected a proposal by BP/ARCO to combine some excavation with another process called electrical resistance heating. That system would have used electricity to heat the remaining ground contamination, causing pollutants to evaporate.

But health officials noted that BP/ARCO had never used the system to clean up contamination and said there were fears the heat could damage underground utilities or force the pollutants farther into residential areas or into new locations.

“ARCO/BP has no record of implementing (electric heating) at any of its cleanup sites, in California or anywhere else,” said the letter.

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