TESTIMONY OF COUNCILWOMAN NORMA LOPEZ-REID,
SUBCOMMITTEE ON SUPERFUND TOXICS, RISK AND WASTE MANAGEMENT
My name is Norma Lopez-Reid. I reside in, and am a councilwoman for, the city of Montebello, California. I began my involvement in addressing the problems of the Operation Industries Landfill as a resident of this community. Today I am here to speak to you, both, as a resident who lives one house away from the landfill, and in my official capacity with the city.
I would like to talk about the positive experience that my community has had with EPA and what they have done, at one of the largest Superfund sites, to assist us with a monstrous problem. When my neighbors and I moved into this development of new homes, we had no idea that the area was infested with toxic, hazardous waste, which included vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Had it not been for the remarkable clean up efforts of EPA with their program, the authority to make responsible parties accountable, and the funds to begin the project, our health and the well being of our community would still be at stake.
In the city of Montebello, California, residents living near the Operating Industries Landfill (OII) came home each evening to an area filled with migrating gases, that made them suffer from headaches, nauseating odors, and grass-less yards due to the hazardous liquid waste, called leachate, that seeped out of the ground. These difficult circumstances made the quality of life in this bedroom community decrease considerably, we couldn't even open our windows on hot summer nights. Little did our residents know the extent to which companies, large and small, had been allowed to dump incredible amounts of hazardous waste, including carcinogens, into the landfill that was only supposed to contain regular trash. By the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved, approximately 180 million gallons of hazardous waste had been illegally dumped in our backyards creating massive numbers of safety hazards for the people of Montebello. Although many of the residents here began their campaign with local and state officials to close the OII landfill, the real work and relief began when EPA declared the landfill a Superfund Site in 1986.
The OII site is a 190-acre parcel located in the city of Monterey Park, California, 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The landfill property marks the boundary between the city of Monterey Park and the city of Montebello. The residential neighborhoods are on the south and east ends of the parcel, which is bisected by the Pomona (Rte. 60) Freeway. Landfill operation began in approximately 1950 and continued until 1984. EPA listed the site on the National Priorities List in May of 1986.
When EPA entered the picture, they took significant steps to reduce health risks to nearby residents by addressing impacted residences adjacent to the site. These efforts included treating the migration of methane and other gases in the houses, the migration of liquid leachate into the yards and park areas and the threats of slides from unstable slopes onto the homes, to mention a few items. In addition to these emergency response actions, EPA was able to take steps to have the responsible companies pay for their part of the cost in the clean up. EPA invested several million dollars to begin the investigation and emergency response, that money came from the Superfund. EPA leveraged the federal dollars by obtaining agreements for the polluters to pay for this multi-hundred-million dollar effort at this site. If the federal government had not stepped in with dollars toward this project, our community would still be suffering from this horrible threat. Making this a priority has made a tremendous difference in our lives.
When EPA took over the site, they had to assess all that was there and they literally had to "triage" the site in order to begin their efforts. They realized that the gasses and liquid leachate were probably the most significant threats to the community's health and safety and, therefore, built a gas collection and treatment facility and a leachate collection treatment plant.
In 1992-93 approximately 200 homes were tested for the possibility of migrating gases, such as vinyl chloride, seeping into the homes. Six homes were found to have an elevated level of vinyl chloride or methane gas. ( I recall hearing about small explosions in the fireplace of one of my neighbors.) EPA installed gas collection systems in these homes. For ten years the EPA monitored these homes with incredible patience and dedication.
There were 8 consent decrees that outlined the problems and remedies needed. This included additional landscaping for the buffer zone in Iguala Park, where many of our children played as they waited for the school bus, since that had been a designated bus stop prior to our awareness of the contamination that had taken place in the area. Fortunately, EPA fenced off the area, immediately, in order to avoid further contamination so that our children could be safe.
An aspect of this situation that is important to note is that, soon after the landfill was closed, the OII owner quickly declared bankruptcy and walked away from the monstrous situation he had allowed to be created. I can assure you that many of the thousands of culprits involved would have done the same had it not been for EPA making them accountable for their actions.
One of the most notable efforts from EPA has been the unique level of community involvement that they have always sought. They not only kept us informed of their discoveries, plans and processes but gave us the opportunity to give them feedback and become actively involved in the decision-making efforts. This, in itself, made a tremendous difference for our neighbors and their peace of mind.
During these difficult times many of our neighbors thought that maybe selling their homes and leaving the area would be best for their families. Unfortunately, the value of our property plummeted and those who were even able to sell did not get their market value's worth.
In the meantime, there was still a tremendous concern about our health and the health of our children. Even some of our pets came down with inexplicable tumors and growths. There is one specific cul-de-sac that backs up into the landfill area in which three families have had confirmed cancer diagnosis. The worst fears have come true for some of our neighboring families--several of our neighbors have already died of cancer--including one of our neighborhood leaders and heroes, Hank Yoshitake. To this day, the fear continues to permeate throughout the neighborhood that, in time, others of us may come down with cancer. While EPA has prevented further exposure to contaminants, we hope that the Public Health Department will monitor the long-term effects of the original contamination.
Most Recent and Future Efforts
The most dramatic work that has been done on the site was the construction of the permanent landfill cover in 2000. This involved major earth moving to remove old dirt and replace it with a six-foot-thick cover of clean soil and vegetation on the slopes of the landfill. The purpose of the multi-layer cover is to prevent rainwater from entering the landfill and to stop landfill gas from migrating out. In December of 2001 EPA completed the construction of the ground water remedy. Maintenance of operation and maintenance of site systems is still in progress.
EPA has continued to work with the City of Monterey Park and private industries to re-develop the 45 acre parcel of land to the north of the freeway which did not have significant quantities of hazardous waste. This land has been one of the largest pieces of underdeveloped property in the Los Angeles area. The Monterey Park City Council is working with the Montebello City Council to build a center for retail shopping on the site.
In conclusion, the EPA's involvement and incredible heroic efforts at the OII landfill have be enormously successful. It is critical that these efforts be continued in other areas where these monstrous problems have taken place. This example should serve as a powerful reminder that no population should be forced to shoulder and live in such burdensome environments, this is the reason it is important that a strong Superfund program be available to assist others in this type of situation.