Linda Keith was making dinner for her sons when her kitchen sink stopped up.
Her husband, Chuck, tried clearing it, but everything he used got stuck in the pipe. They called a plumber, who had to dig up their floor, and he found something he’d never seen before — a sewer pipe steeped in gobs of thick, foul-smelling oil.
The pipe was so corroded that much of it had simply dissolved and was only held in place by the soil packed beneath it. His team pulled out six buckets of syrupy sludge just a few feet below the family’s hallway floor.
“It was unbelievable. It was just pouring oil,” said Andres Velasquez, a Los Angeles Rooter-Man plumbing hired to fix the problem. “It was all around the sewer pipe and the pipe had just disintegrated. There was no bottom of the pipe at all.”
The Carson neighborhood was secretly built atop millions of tons of waste oil from a former Shell Oil tank farm that closed just before the 285 homes were built in the 1960s.
The contamination was uncovered during routine testing in 2008 and, since then, a cleanup plan was negotiated by Shell Oil, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, and Girardi & Keese, the law firm representing residents in their lawsuit over the mess.
But the plan resulted in a toxic Catch-22 for the Keiths and other families living atop huge stores of oil: Their front and back yards will be dug up and replaced with clean dirt to a depth of up to 10 feet. But the sludge under their homes will be left behind because water board regulators decided it’s not enough of a health threat to be removed.
Residents and Carson city leaders begged officials for years to buy out the residents and raze the homes so they could relocate. But they were ignored in favor of the piecemeal plan. Now there is little recourse because residents settled with Shell and the property owner, Dole Food Co., on the cleanup terms and on a $120 million payout that has not yet been released.
“When I looked in that hole (in the Keiths’ home) and saw the oil coming out, I was livid,” said Barbara Post, president of the homeowners association. “Everywhere you go, you’re going to find this. We’re going to live with this for another six years because this is what was negotiated for us.”
The Keiths now have four-foot-deep holes in their downstairs bathroom, kitchen, closets and hallway. About 60 feet of corroded pipe was removed in all.
The damage to the sewer pipes spread to other lines and the project will cost the family $43,000. They also now have to clean the dust and debris that covers much of their home and their newly finished paint job. Plumbers also found similar corrosion in the neighbors’ pipes.
“Our crown molding and custom floors are all dug up,” Chuck Keith said. “I think my wife’s been crying but not around me because she knows I’d cry.”
Shell is paying for the Keiths to stay in a hotel while the plumbing work is done, and the company sent workers to take away the oil under their home and replace the dirt.
But company officials said they aren’t sure the problems are related to their oil contamination.
“We don’t have sufficient information right now to make determinations on issues associated with plumbing piping,” Shell officials said in a written statement issued Friday.
“We have received this feedback from the homeowner and are following up on it as we do with all of our inquiries. Each individual situation is different, and we are committed to responding to all with the same care. There are a wide range of factors that can impact sanitary plumbing piping.”
Cleaning of the Carousel tract began in May and will continue for at least six more years, as groups of eight homes at a time are walled off for months while their yards are dug up to a maximum of 10 feet.
Residents relocate to hotels while their yards are cleaned. But neighbors are struggling to deal with the constant truck traffic, bad odors and other side effects — like the oily sheen that Connie Simons can’t clean off of her grandson’s favorite pool float no matter how much she scrubs.
Simons lives across the street from yards that are currently being cleaned. The street is divided by a temporary wall that narrows it to one lane that creates a blind turn out of the family’s driveway.
“When they open the gates to let the trucks in (behind the wall), all the smells come out and right into our house,” Simons said.
BioSolve, a product that can stick to hydrocarbon molecules and contain them in an emulsion for removal, is liberally sprayed in the areas where work is performed. While it is harmless, Simons and others say it leaves them with a bitter, metallic taste and smell.
The family also worries a fire truck wouldn’t fit on their street anymore in case of an emergency because of the wall divider.
Meanwhile, as Chuck and Linda Keith work to restore their home to a livable condition, residents throughout the community are now worried their underground pipes are compromised.
Linda Keith said she smelled a sewer odor coming from her sink for years before a clog stopped it altogether. Her neighbors report similar smells.
“We’ve heard about what’s under here, but this is the first time we’re really seeing what’s beneath our homes,” Post said. “Those big walls they put up are for more than sound and smells. They don’t want us to see what it really looks like under there.”
Cancer pervades the community, along with a bevy of other illnesses. Sharon Ogden, who lives next door to the Keiths, was in the hospital for an infection when the plumbing problem was discovered. She said she stayed hospitalized a day longer to avoid the jack-hammering next door.
The plumbers also found corroded pipes under the Ogdens’ home, and the family worries over how to pay for the extensive repairs.
“I’ve been sick for so many years. All our pets have died,” Ogden said. “When I came home from the hospital I started coughing right away. I can’t stand another day here but now we can’t sell our homes. I feel like we’re just trapped.
“We did not plan to live the rest of our lives like this.”