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Carson residents living on toxic soil have little judicial, legal, legislative luck with cleanup

Homeowners in Carson's Carousel neighborhood have faced setbacks in their efforts to hold developers and the Shell Oil company responsible for toxic soil under their houses.

Regional water regulators have told Shell to clean up what was for 40 years a tank farm with open reservoirs of oil. Testing has revealed potentially explosive methane gas, and chemicals like benzene that can raise cancer risks.

People in Carson are skeptical of the plans to clean up those chemicals by removing contaminated soil. Barbara Post heads the Carson Homeowners Association. "Would you really live with truckloads of contaminated soil going out – what did they say, it would take 70 truckloads a day. And then they're going to haul in clean dirt? To fill that whole tract 10 feet under?"

Post and others in Carson want water regulators to move more quickly, but cleanup will take years, and liability is complicated. Carson Mayor Jim Dear asked the state Attorney General's Office to get involved.

Dear says environmental laws went into effect too late to protect homeowners. "The city of Carson did not exist when the county of Los angeles approved the tract map to allow houses to be built on an area where these tanks were simply buried underground, under your house. That should never have been done. We know that."

Shell has argued that developers who bought the property and built homes in the Carousel neighborhood are to blame. The developers' lawyers argue that too much time has passed.

Now an L.A. Superior Court judge has ruled that a state law meant to limit claims against builders for construction defects also prevents Carson homeowners from bringing a lawsuit over pollution.

Assemblyman Warren Furutani represents Carson. He says the law shouldn't protect polluters. "So that's why we're doing the bill to look at how we can correct that. Key issue for us is that it's got to be retrospective to apply to the Carousel Tract, not prospective."

Furutani's bill has set off alarms for builders, who fear it could release a mountain of lawsuits. The assemblyman says he'll rework his bill and consult with the Assembly's judiciary committee to make sure it won't have unintended consequences.

That's set the law back until next year. His constituents in Carson are waiting for Shell to submit papers about its cleanup plan to water regulators sometime later this summer.