Toxic Living: California Neighbors Sue After Finding Homes Were Built on Oil-Saturated Soil

"Everybody in life can make mistakes. The trick of what kind of a person you are is what you do after the mistake is made known to you," Girardi said.

"Do you just sit there and just let other people get exposed to this chemical? Do you let more people come down with leukemia?" he asked. "Or do you say 'My goodness, look what we did. We're supposed to be a good corporation.'"

Shell, which still operates a refinery in Carson, declined several formal interview requests, but released a e-mail statement questioning not only the company's role in the contamination, but whether or not the oil left behind is posing a serious health risk.

"While Shell did not develop the property for residential use, Shell, as a good corporate citizen, has stepped up to the plate and commenced a state-of-the-art environmental investigation," the statement read.

"The environmental agencies have stated that the data so far do not indicate any imminent health or safety risk to the public," the Shell statement read.

Medical experts hired by Girardi Keese have just begun the arduous process of trying to determine whether there is a link between the toxic soil and some residents' yearslong struggles with cancer, migraines, anemia, vertigo and birth defects.

Residents who once enjoyed community barbecues, parades, egg-throwing contests and holiday decorations now largely stay inside, afraid of their own lawns. They say their homes, many once valued around a half-million dollars, are now worthless.

The lawsuit, filed in October against Shell, the developer and its subsequent owners, claims among other things that the companies were negligent in their treatment of the site and that they fraudulently concealed chemical hazards on the property.

Girardi was careful not to attach a dollar amount to the suit, but environmental experts say the contamination could wind up costing the defendants hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup alone if they are found liable.

"It's not about the money," said resident and plaintiff Lourdes Piazza, whose Ravenna Avenue home tested positive for one of the highest concentrations of benzene in the neighborhood. "If I end up with cancer, if one of my family members ends up with cancer -- money can't buy your health."

Shell Oil Questions Role in Contamination Under California Neighborhood

For 40 years, homeowners and town officials had no idea that the Carousel houses, most accented with palm trees and exotic desert plants, were built on an oil site that Girardi says had never been adequately cleaned out before development started atop a few feet of fresh top soil.

The happenstance discovery in 2008 of highly concentrated benzene and methane during routine testing on an adjacent manufacturing site -- a plant whose operations does not involve either chemical -- led state experts right to Carousel.

Digging just a few feet into a front yard yields mounds of oily soil and chunks of concrete from the collapsed tank walls, accompanied by a noxious odor of rotting oil. Less than 10 feet under Piazza's front yard, the oil simply floats on top of groundwater.

Shell opened the site in 1923 to supply crude oil to a nearby refinery. The storage site was shut down, dismantled and sold in 1966, when the city was part of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

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