Pollution from a source of contaminated groundwater near Torrance Airport — which exceeds state drinking-water standards and generates potentially harmful chemical vapors — has spread beneath Lomita, officials with the tiny city recently learned, though state officials have long known about it.
The contaminants have spread both through the groundwater and the soil.
It’s the second discovery of industrial pollution found in groundwater beneath the city this year; in May, the chemical benzene was discovered in Lomita’s water well, in levels exceeding state standards, leading to city to begin using more expensive imported water.
The two, however, are not believed to be connected, said hydrology consultant Mark Trudell, who the city hired to independently assess the contamination and any risks it may pose.
The well is more than a mile from the property of Torrance aerospace company Hi-Shear Corp., 2600 Skypark Drive, whose manufacturing operations is believed to be one of the main sources of the contaminated subterranean water, Lomita officials recently learned. The pollution stemming from Hi-Shear’s property, which the company has leased from Torrance since 1954, has been evaporating through soil and percolating into buildings.
The pollution itself is in a “perched” aquifer 90 feet below ground surface, while drinking water is drawn from a deeper aquifer shielded; there is a relatively impermeable layer of clay 20-to-40 feet thick separating the two.
“The water supply well is pretty far south,” Trudell said. “We don’t have any data to indicate a potential threat to the city’s water supply at this time.”
There is, however, a paucity of data about the extent of the contamination in Lomita.
That’s why Hi-Shear plans to drill and install a network of soil and water probes to measure contaminant levels, said Stephen Van der Hoven, vice president and senior geologist with Genesis Engineering & Redevelopment, a Lodi company that will conduct the testing.
The Lomita City Council last week directed staff to negotiate an agreement with Hi-Shear, which would allow the company to conduct studies in the public right-of-way designed to determine how much the pollution — from the volatile organic compounds — has spread through the soil both vertically and horizontally.
The state’s maximum contaminant level for volatile organic compounds in drinking water is 5 micrograms per liter and the concentrations discovered in the groundwater near Hi-Shear so far range from 5 to more than 100 micrograms per liter, Trudell said.
“There’s some very high concentrations just east of the Hi-Shear site, but those concentrations in soil vapors extend beneath the city and beneath residential properties and beneath houses in the city,” he said. “Because some of those screening levels exceed the (state) levels for soil vapor intrusion, that’s a concern.
“I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous,” he added. “It’s something that needs to be looked at: whether these levels pose a risk to human health for residents.”
For now, the pollution in the tiny two-mile square city is believed to extend from the Torrance city limits to about 1,700 feet east of Pennsylvania Avenue, and north and south roughly five blocks between 250th and 245th streets, including Rolling Hills Mobile Home Park.
“Property values are going to tank in that area because of this,” Councilman Mark Waronek said, adding he was concerned about the affect on municipal finances, too.
“We’re a small city, we don’t have a lot of money, especially for something like this,” he added. “This could really hurt us financially.”
But an attorney representing Hi-Shear attempted to assure municipal officials the company would not abandon the community.
Hi-Shear says it's responsible
“We’re accepting responsibility for this 100%,” said Thomas Schmidt of Hamrick & Evans, the Burbank law firm representing Hi-Shear.
“We’re here to help the city deal with this problem,” he added. “We’re going to help pay for it and we’re going to get this work done as quickly as we can.”
Still, the city and affected residents have found themselves plopped into the middle of an unresolved environmental issue that has developed over decades and spawned a complex web of lawsuits likely to take years to resolve.
Schmidt said Torrance sued Hi-Shear in 2017 for breach of contract under the terms of the lease so that it could seek compensation for any environmental clean-up. Hi-Shear, in turn, has sued “dozens” of companies after finding additional sources of contamination on land to the north and northeast of its property, he said.
Contaminated groundwater was also found under Torrance Airport, which the city of Torrance owns, and beneath adjoining properties, such as the sites of Lowe’s, South Bay Lexus and Robinson Helicopter Co. — one of the city’s largest private employers. Torrance owns all those properties.
Torrance City Attorney Patrick Sullivan said there is no trial date yet set for the federal lawsuit between the city and Hi-Shear. That portion is on hold while Hi-Shear adds new parties to the case.
Lomita City Manager Ryan Smoot, for his part, said in a statement that officials were “positioning to aggressively pursue the interests of our community.”
“The city of Lomita has two top priorities on the Hi-Shear pollution matter: protect our residents and hold the responsible parties accountable for all costs incurred by the city,” he said via email. “While the city of Torrance and Hi-Shear fight about who is ultimately responsible for the pollution, Lomita will focus on ensuring Hi-Shear conducts a thorough and complete investigation as quickly as possible, hold them responsible for making it right, and ensure our residents have all of the information they need throughout the process.”
The site has been the subject of environmental remediation under the direction of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board for almost 30 years. But Lomita officials said last week they were unaware it had been detected in their community during testing three years ago and questioned why they weren’t informed earlier.
The Lomita City Council also directed staff to write a letter to Torrance complaining about the lack of notification.
But Sullivan, Torrance’s attorney, said the inquiry should be directed to Hi-Shear or the state agency, not his city.
Clean-up under way
Enhanced bio-remediation — injections of microbes that essentially eat the contamination in the groundwater — has occurred since 2017, Van der Hoven said.
About 100,000 pounds have been removed so far, but the process will be a long one, he conceded. Trudell, the city consultant, also said that contamination levels seem to have remained fairly constant, which is not the result expected with the remediation.
Outreach efforts are expected to occur soon, so residents understand why drilling rigs are burrowing around the city in various locations, Van der Hoven said.
Nine water monitoring wells and 15 soil vapor probes will be installed to detect and measure any contamination, city officials said.
A similar situation occurred along Del Amo Boulevard in Torrance adjacent to the Torrance Refinery about a decade ago, when chemical vapor from contaminated groundwater percolated through the soil into about 10 homes.
Then refinery owner, ExxonMobil, purchased the homes, razed them and installed equipment to help disperse the off-gassing. Other homeowners in the area who were not directly affected saw the value of their homes decline precipitously, with at least one homeowner seeing the bank foreclose on her home.
Lomita residents fear that sort of uncertainty may affect them, too.
“That’s next to my home,” Councilwoman Cindy Segawa said of the area found to be affected by the contamination so far. “I think I’m below it, but it could be my home as well.”