Home buyers should check for hidden and buried toxins

This was reported in the Sunday July 27, 2008 edition of the LA Times:

Does your new dream home come with dangerous hidden extras — like a seeping oil well in the backyard or a former meth lab in the bedroom?

By Diane Wedner, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 27, 2008

It’s in the tank. Up in smoke. Biting the dust.

The real estate market?

No. The toxic substances in the water, air and dirt enveloping many Southern California properties. With leaky oil wells in backyards, solid-waste landfills near homes and abandoned meth labs in residential areas, it’s a wonder Southland residents aren’t neon.

“California . . . has thousands of waste sites that were contaminated either by industrial, agricultural or past military uses,” said Angela Blanchette, a spokeswoman for the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“Some towns don’t have much to worry about,” said Ralph Kephart, president of Long Beach-based GeoAssurance Inc. and an expert in mapping natural and environmental hazards statewide. “But some towns have been abandoned because of toxic spills.”

So when thinking about purchasing that perfect house near a onetime military base, dry cleaner or property that’s been empty for a while, experts advise paying a private company $50 to $150 for a detailed environmental hazards report or searching for free online information about the neighborhood from government agencies. Unknown environmental hazards are not included in the blizzard of paperwork buyers read at the close of escrow, so consumers bear the burden of uncovering the potential presence of noxious substances themselves. And there are plenty.

Although hundreds of so-called brownfield sites are now cleaned up and put back to productive use, according to Blanchette, hundreds still are awaiting cleanup and redevelopment. As of mid-July, her department listed more than 2,000 toxic-waste sites statewide. These figures do not include all of the federal Superfund sites or those under other state jurisdictions.

There are nearly 24,000 oil wells in Los Angeles and Orange counties, many properly abandoned but many not, according to the state Department of Conservation. And in 2007, 83 methamphetamine labs in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties were identified by the state and cleaned up — just the tip of the iceberg, experts say, because many labs go undetected.

Sounds pretty nasty. Guillermo Mata, 31, knows first-hand just how nasty. The construction equipment sales rep considered buying a bank-owned duplex in Long Beach two months ago, until he walked upstairs and realized he had stumbled into a former meth lab.

Signs of trouble

The home had been vacant for some time and had become a “total, disgusting wreck,” he said. Some foreclosed properties are targeted by meth producers as “fly-by-night meth labs,” said Corey Yep, senior policy analyst for the state’s toxic substances control department. They’re not known to the police but are discovered by agents or buyers walking through.

When Mata and his agent, Autumn Anderson, entered the top unit, they saw a hole in the ceiling, through which a crude vent had been installed. The walls were stained and the house stank, all telltale signs of meth production.

Even though the price was right — about $355,000 — Mata said it would have cost $100,000 to make the duplex habitable. “The last thing I wanted was a rental unit where kids would get sick,” Mata said.

Meth labs produce solvents, acids, phosphorous, iodine and metals, which can result in respiratory problems, skin and eye irritation, headaches, nausea, lung damage and body burns. They recently were among the biggest health threats to homeowners, according to Cal/EPA, but that danger has waned as production has moved to Mexico.

California passed legislation in 2006 requiring that owners of meth-contaminated homes clean them up. Local agencies oversee the work and give the owners written confirmation of the completed job, which can cost between $5,000 and $100,000, depending on the level of contamination, Yep said. Contractors hired for the cleanup should be trained in hazardous-waste remediation. The state Department of Consumer Affairs provides a list of licensed contractors.

Yep recommends that home buyers check with local law enforcement agencies to see if the property they’re considering is on a list of former meth labs, and ask neighbors about any activity on the block.

“Use your senses,” Yep said. “Look outside for dead patches in the grass,” where chemicals may have been dumped.

Like meth labs, oil wells may harbor hidden menaces, unknown to a buyer until trouble comes calling.

Although thousands of the region’s wells — dating to the 1920s or earlier when abandonment rules were nonexistent — are properly capped and pose no threats, many still are buried in homeowners’ backyards and require attention when leaking methane gas rises to the surface or the water becomes contaminated. Depending on the depth of the well and remediation involved, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix.

Lee and Barbara Shoag, veteran real estate agents, purchased a home in 2004 in Long Beach, their primary sales territory and a city with a long history of oil wells. After paying architectural and city permit fees for a remodel, they were instructed to consult with the state’s Department of Oil and Gas, which concluded there was an idle buried well on the property that had to be properly capped before construction could commence.

The job, they were told, would require drilling down 3,200 feet, bringing in a cement truck, hauling in a 4-inch-thick water line and filling the well with cement to avoid methane gas leaks. The cost: $70,000.

The Shoags hired a geo-tech company to locate the well and drive stakes into the spot, Barbara said. However, the couple, not wanting to invest such a large sum in the cleanup, ditched the project, made some cosmetic fixes to the house and sold it as-is — after disclosing the existence of the oil well — to a buyer to whom they offered “a deal.”

“My husband got a lot of gray hair over this,” Barbara Shoag said.

Meth labs and oil wells are one thing. Leaking underground storage tanks and toxic landfills identified as Superfund sites and mandated by the government for cleanup are another. Superfund sites — there are 23 federal and at least 100 active state sites in Southern California — often are huge and can take years to clean up.

Homes near dumps

The so-called McColl site was a 22-acre waste disposal facility in Fullerton contaminated with oil-refinery acid sludge, among other toxins. In 1960, the western portion was covered so the Los Coyotes Country Club Golf Course could be built there. In 1968, a number of homes went up on the eastern side, one of which is less than 100 feet from the site. More than 6,700 people live within three miles of the area, according to the state’s toxic substances control department.

Following complaints from residents about odors and health problems, local, state and federal agencies investigated the dump. They discovered that soil and groundwater there contained dangerous chemicals. After a federal cleanup that took 13 years, the job was completed in 1997. The agency continues to check the site and assess risks to human health.

Important as it is to many residents to know they live near once-teeming toxic-waste sites, there still are “some people who don’t want to know,” said Ken Thornburgh, an industrial hygienist, toxicologist and safety engineer with Westlake Village-based American Environmental Group. For sellers, “it impacts the value of your house, and there’s stigma that goes along with it.”

Although California sellers are required to know about and report to potential buyers the natural hazards — floods, fires and earthquakes — in their neighborhoods, they are not required to investigate or disclose environmental hazards of which they are not aware, said June Barlow, vice president and general counsel for the California Assn. of Realtors. That may include waste from an auto-body shop down the street 30 years ago or the corner mini-mall that was once a metal-polishing company.

CAR provides a booklet, available to clients from agents, describing potential environmental hazards, which the industry trade group recommends buyers and sellers read. There is a host of companies, such as Environmental Data Resources Inc., GeoAssurance Inc. and National Disclosure Authority, that will, for a fee, provide reports to individuals and businesses about the known contamination sources in a neighborhood. That information can help owners and buyers take measures to ensure their family’s safety.

“If you’ve got contaminated water tables, you can get a water filtration system,” said Farah Nourmand, chief legal officer for National Disclosure Authority. Or if a home is “near a landfill that is on a Superfund” list, shop elsewhere.

Once that house is found, there are other, less dramatic hazards to consider. Buyers of new, mobile, manufactured and recently remodeled homes are advised to check for formaldehyde, which may be found in cabinetry, building products and furniture. Home test kits are available for about $90, according to the state’s Air Resources Board.

Buyers of older homes should have professionals check for asbestos and lead-based paint, and all homes should be tested for the presence of radon, experts say.

Buyers who purchase properties on which oil wells or contaminants are discovered are advised to use one expert to inform them of the existence and extent of the problem and another to remove it. Get more than one bid for remediation.

“It’s best to find these things out before signing a purchase contract,” Long Beach agent Lee Shoag said. “Environmental reports are relatively cheap. It can cost a bundle in cleanup fees, lost equity and sometimes legal fees, however, if the hazards are discovered afterward.”

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