Neighbors accuse county of dumping paint

Add paint to the witch's brew of oil and other contaminants seeping through a south Merced neighborhood.

Residents were already concerned about health problems they say could stem from leaking underground oil tanks that contaminated the area decades ago. The California Regional Water Quality Control Board is setto clean up the dirty water and soil and insists that they don't pose any health hazards.

Not only are residents weary of this statement, but at a recent meeting to address it, they made public more allegations of filth. This time it was paint.

Councilman Carl Pollard invited residents to a public meeting Nov. 1 to discuss the contamination and cleanup.It was at this meeting that Ira Jones, who lives on the 400 block of 8th Street, asserted that paint was being dumped into a pit near his home.

The pit is on county Public Works property. Jones said he has seen people dumping paint there since 1985.City, county and state officials who attended the meeting said "that isn't supposed to be happening," Pollard said. And Jones said he saw the paint cleaned up the following Monday by Advanced Chemical Transport, awaste-management disposal company.

Merced County spokeswoman Katie Albertson was unable to confirm how long the paint had been dumped on the site, but said the county takes the incident very seriously. "We're taking steps to continue to investigateand make sure this doesn't happen again," she said.

The state Environmental Protection Agency would not allow a reporter to speak its representative who attended the Nov. 1 meeting in Merced, instead referring her to a spokesperson who was not in the office.

On Tuesday the paint sat in eight large drums next to the pit it had filled, which was now covered with a tarp.This did little to ease residents' concerns.

"Everything is dumped into this neighborhood," Jones said, observing that the paint only added to the neighborhood's contamination problems.

Leaks from above- and below-ground tanks were discovered in 1991 at a former gasoline station and bulk petroleum plant, now the site of Merced Truck & Trailer. The tanks were taken out of operation between 1975 and 1983, according to a report by the state water board.

Benzene, a cancer-causing agent, and other components of gasoline, have leached out from the site and now form a chemical plume that covers half of Johnathan Court, as well as the homes on 6th, 7th, and 8th streetsthat fall between Canal Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the water board reports.It will conduct a four- to -seven-year-long cleanup of the area.

No health hazards have been reported, but South Merced residents are concerned and don't believe they are being taken seriously. "No one is speaking up for this area," said Pollard, who worries about their waterquality.

So does Garnetta Beavers, who lives near the tanks. She said earlier this month that her tap water smells like bleach and tastes gross. But Mike Wegley, Merced deputy director of public works, says the water for residents is captured much deeper in the ground than the paint or oil reaches. And the city tests the water that comes out of the well.

"If it were to get in there, we'd find out about it," he said. "We haven't found it. As far as it coming out of the faucet - it shouldn't occur."

However, Nola Brown, a retired nurse who lives on K Street near 8th, said she now only buys bottled water. She began buying bottled water after the recent deaths of her two dogs, who used to drink tap water. Sh can't confirm why her dogs died, nor did she find any confirmation regarding the cause of a spot she said was found recently on her lungs.

But she wouldn't rule out the contamination in her neighborhood as the culprit.

Jones said the state should conduct more testing. "And we want them to be more up front and honest with people."