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Environmental cleanup effort in South Merced running into delays

The long-awaited environmental cleanup of the Merced County Public Works Yard in South Merced has gotten off to a slow start -- and some residents say that's putting it mildly.

Last February, the county started cleaning up gasoline and diesel fuel that had leaked from several underground storage tanks 25 years ago.

Over the past 10 months, the equipment used to remove the potentially dangerous chemicals has been broken about half of the time, according to Richard Schwarz, assistant director for the Merced County Department of Public Works. "With something that runs 24/7, you have to maintain it. That's just the way it is. I think there are too many components that broke -- but that's nobody's fault," he said. He added that cleanup efforts in recent months have had a "significant, positive effect on the reduction of petroleum hydrocarbons in the groundwater."

The leaking underground fuel tanks were originally identified in 1986. A year later the case was closed. The county said the tanks were removed, although no official documentation of the removal was ever produced.

Then in 2007 a plume of chemicals was discovered underneath the county yard, a nearby trucking company and several homes. The additional monitoring was conducted after the county was caught illegally dumping paint on its property, and the trucking company was found to have leaking tanks of its own.

Depending on who's talking, the sense of urgency ranges from long-standing rage to a notch above casual.

"As in anything geological, don't get urgent about anything," Schwarz said. "Take it one day at a time and let the experts determine where we go from here."

According to a county contracted Health Risk Assessment, the plume of hydrocarbons and other chemicals emanating from the environmental remediation site at 715 Martin Luther King Jr. Way possess "no significant threat" to local residents.

However, that's little comfort to local residents such as Ira Jones, who's been frustrated with the county's cleanup efforts for years. "It's all lies," he said. "People are continuing to get sick. I live there. I'm sick. The people right next door, we've had several stillbirths. The property is highly contaminated as we speak."

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board -- the lead agency overseeing the remediation project -- doesn't have an official opinion on the county's Health Risk Assessment, but its officials have expressed concern over the repeated mechanical failures.

"The Regional Water Board's goal is to see that the remedial actions occur as quickly as practicable," said Lonnie Wass, spokesman for the water board. "Both the county and the Regional Water Board are disappointed with the equipment performance during its startup. The Regional Water Board is optimistic that the ongoing remedial action will abate the problem soon."

The next progress report is due at the beginning of February. There's a "downward trend" in petroleum hydrocarbon concentrations since March 2008, according to the water board.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or at