Teresa Alvarez has been washing dishes in the bathtub of her single-family Carson home for a year now because her kitchen sink no longer drains.
The children she baby-sits to make supplemental income in her retirement haven’t been allowed to play on the swing set and playhouse in her backyard for years. Most days, she takes them to other communities to play because she’s worried about contamination around her home.
Mold and fungus have sprung up along the walls and floors above her underground sewer pipes. And ruby-red pomegranates hang heavy on a backyard tree.
“We can’t eat them,” Alvarez said. “We got all this stuff for the kids, but we can’t use it.”
Her neighbors have similar problems: flies attracted by leaking subslab sewer pipes, noxious odors emanating from drains, mold, and backed-up sinks. A plumber told Alvarez it would cost $10,000 just to begin work on her kitchen sink. She can’t afford the bill, so she carries dishes in a bucket to wash in her tub and lets utensils dry on the shower window sill.
Alvarez lives in the Carousel tract neighborhood, built on top of a former Shell Oil tank farm that was razed in the 1960s to make way for nearly 300 homes. The developer secretly left behind millions of tons of waste oil, covered by only a few feet of graded soil.
The hazardous deposits were rediscovered in 2008 and, since then, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and Shell have developed a plan to clean petroleum from yards but not under homes or streets.
The land owner, Dole Food Co., purchased the community without realizing the waste oil was left behind after Barclay Hollander Corp. built the homes. Dole and Shell settled a lawsuit this year with residents for $120 million but the funds have yet to be dispersed.
A corner of the neighborhood is blocked off by a tall green sound wall while yards are excavated at groups of eight houses at a time, surrounded by construction equipment and warning signs. The yard excavations move at a glacial pace and will take at least six years in total.
Alvarez’s neighbors, Linda and Chuck Keith, were the first to openly connect the underground contamination to their blocked kitchen sink earlier this month. Now, neighbors having their pipes tested by plumbers are uncovering the same situation again and again: corroded pipes soaked in black soil that reeks of petroleum.
County water board officials who are responsible for overseeing the cleanup to protect the health of residents and groundwater quality have not yet responded to requests for comment on the issue.
Shell officials have trucked out the soil plumbers dug up around sewer pipes in dozens of sealed barrels. But, otherwise, they’re not assisting residents with the problem.
The contaminated soil doesn’t contain “oily liquids,” said Shell spokeswoman Xia Wu.
“The soil at the (Keiths’) property was wet because it surrounded a pipe that had holes where water drained out,” Wu said in an email. “So far, we have found no evidence that corrosion of cast iron pipe at the residence in Carousel was caused by hydrocarbons.”
The Keiths’ home was built directly on top of an oil storage tank that was crushed and abandoned just below the surface. Their new sewer pipes cost $43,000.
Next door, plumbers said it will cost Bill and Sharon Ogden more than $20,000 for repairs.
Rooter-Man plumber Andres Velasquez said the problem likely could be found throughout the community because corrosive petroleum chemicals spread “like cancer,” eating away at the pipes.
Velasquez blocked off Kathleen Ponce’s sewer pipes under her home and rerouted them through her front yard this week. The project cost about $22,000 but finally fixed the leak under her kitchen sink that eroded the slab and drew hoards of drain flies.
“We’ve seen the slab of the floor in the house cracking because it has no support,” Velasquez said, adding that cracks in driveways and floors are all over the community. “You can’t tell how bad the damage is unless you excavate under the house.
“The residents aren’t plumbers. They don’t know what to look for. Shell (officials) test the air (when soil is removed), but whatever the numbers are, they keep it for themselves. I guess they don’t want us to know we’re being poisoned.”
Velasquez said the stuff he’s been digging up at one home after another is clearly petroleum.
Shell trucked away 60 barrels of waste soil from the Ponces’ yard, but said it did so only to adhere to the terms of the cleanup plan negotiated with the water board.
“We remove and manage all soil, regardless of presence or level of impacts,” Wu said. “We welcome any questions from our residents.”
The pipes, Wu said, are deteriorating because they were installed 50 years ago and normally have a life span of 30 years.
Tonya Randle has been smelling a sewer odor near her drains for years.
“My kitchen sink is so horrible I can’t stand to wash dishes,” Randle said. “After I saw (the Keiths’ plumbing problems) I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to go back into deep prayer because I can’t afford this.’ ”