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

"There's a very obvious fire and explosion hazard in this neighborhood that needs to be dealt with immediately," Tarr said as he drove through the Carousel streets, pointing out street signs warning construction crews who might dig in the area of smoking dangers from possible methane pockets. "I believe that the Shell oil company would pay for something like that given that they're the ones that left the problem behind when they shut down these three crude oil storage tanks underneath the subdivision."

"I think that this neighborhood should be abandoned at least until the fire and explosion hazard gets straightened out and after that until the benzene problems get resolved," he said. "And there may well be other problems that we don't know about yet that also have to be resolved first."

Carousel Residents Stuck With Contaminated Homes, Can't Afford to Move

Most of the residents still living in the Carousel neighborhood can't afford to relocate while still owing hundreds of thousands on their houses.

Adolfo Valdes said the decision to buy his fixer-upper on Carousel's Ravenna Avenue in 2003 was one of the worst of his life, though he had no way of knowing it at the time.

Snagging the house for a good deal at about $350,000, Valdes, a 34-year-old longshoreman, sunk tens of thousands of dollars in improvements into the house that he shares with his wife and four daughters. Saving money by doing the labor himself, Valdes put in a new pool patio, hardwood floors and bathroom tile. The kitchen was completely redone with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

Then one day last year, "There was a bunch of white trucks and people in vests drilling holes on our streets," he said. "Then we got letters from Shell."

The letters, which went out to many Carousel residents this spring, warned homeowners about abnormally high levels of chemicals and that they should avoid direct contact with the dirt to be safe.

Valdes' heart sunk. He said his daughters, the youngest just 3 and 6, suffer from frequent headaches. He no longer allows them to play outside. His older daughters would have to be driven to a park in the next town to practice their soccer kicks.

And worse, Valdes said he learned that the near daily headaches that plagued him daily and the head-splitting migraines that have sent his wife to the emergency room, were very likely caused by the home he took so much pride in restoring.

In March, a trench was dug in Valdes' front yard.

"When they actually tested here and we saw the dark oil it's like, 'Okay, we need to get out of here,'" he said. "It's pretty bad, pretty heartbreaking. All the emotions that go through -- it's pretty bad."

"They recommended don't grow anything you can eat, don't do any gardening, don't let your kids play in the yard," he said of a letter he got from Shell this spring. "It's like okay, Easter egg hunt inside of the house."

Valdes wants to move his family to a safe home. But with a family of six, a tough year financially after a work-related injury and a mortgage owed on a home that the lawyers say is essentially worthless, Valdes doesn't have the money to leave.

"Usually if you strike oil it's a good thing, but not in this case. No one wants to live here. We can't sell our house," he said. "If it was up to me, if I had money that I can go buy another house, than I would do that."

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