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Media Coverage
Richmond Ends Up With Oil On Its Face Over Spill
March 7, 1998



Saturday, March 7, 1998
Section: News
Page: A01
Shawn Masten
Caption: Photo. Richmond resident Alfredo Ornelas checks out the portion of his back yard soaked with oil spilled from the city's corporation yard. (Mark DuFrene/Times).

RICHMOND Workers saturated the soil at the city's corporation yard with a sloppy spray of petroleum products that has fouled the ground and sent a 30-foot oil slick into a neighbor's back yard.

The spill occurred while workers were spraying an oil-based mixture to clean asphalt at the 13th Street yard. State regulators say the spraying violated local, state and federal rules that impose strict guidelines on handling oil and came at a time when Richmond has been charging each of its residents $32 a year to help clean up pollution flowing from the city into the Bay.

Despite complaints from the neighbors, crews acted to clean up the spill only after city officials discovered the mess during a tour of the yard and after the state and county inspected.

Evidence of the spill remains in Alfredo Ornelas' back yard.

There, the grass is black, slats in a fence have been stained, a tree appears to be dying and a strong, oil stench hangs in the air. Ornelas said he and his wife, Elisa, and their 10-month-old daughter Melissa, keep their windows closed to keep from getting sick. They said they noticed the oil two months ago.

"We cannot be in the back yard with the baby," Ornelas said.

City officials only learned of the spill after touring the corporation yard with Corky Booze, a Richmond businessman. Booze has been the target of city complaints about conditions at his auto repair shop, but has countered that Richmond has a double standard when it comes to its own facilities, including the corporation yard. Workers repair city cars and equipment at the corporation yard.

Booze was accompanied on the Feb. 23 tour by Assistant City Attorney Jack Judkins and Councilman Tom Butt. Butt said he was shocked and disgusted by what they found.

"It shows a complete disregard for the law and for the residents who live in that area," Butt said.

The full City Council learned about the problem at its corporation yard during its closed meeting Tuesday. Public Works Supervisor Arlanders Etheley, who supervises the yard, told the council that basins designed to catch oil drippings had overflowed in the rain, said Interim City Manager Leveron Bryant.

The council also was told that the spraying was done by workers from the city's oil recycling company, not city employees, Bryant said. Bryant said he is reviewing the city's procedure for handling oil products and he will make a report at the council's next closed session meeting scheduled for March 17.

"We have an obvious responsibility to make sure that we are not only abiding by the law but also setting an example and we should be setting the best example," Mayor Rosemary Corbin said.

Councilwoman Donna Powers said other businesses are cited for same offenses: "It's unconscionable that our own staff isn't doing what we are requiring other businesses to do."

The city was ordered to clean up the site after a Feb. 27 inspection by George Leyva of the regional Water Quality Control Board, which issues the city's storm water drainage permit. Leyva said he found that the city was not covering stored fuels and chemicals to protect them from rain contamination as required by law. He said the asphalt cleaning should have been performed in an area where spills can be controlled.

The asphalt cleaning operation was about 40 feet from a storm drain and right up against the fence separating the yard from Ornelas' property. At least seven 55-gallon oil drums were stored there, and the ground in the area was soaked with oil, as a videotape Booze made on Feb. 25 and gave to the Times shows.

Although the storm drain was deemed clean by Leyva, the city could face a fine of $10,000 for each day it didn't control the spillage, he said. Leyva said he will rely on the city and the neighbors to determine the number of days. "There was evidence to indicate that they'd been doing it for months," Leyva said.

City officials offered Thursday to clean up the Ornelas' back yard, but the family refused. They're waiting to talk to an attorney before they allow a clean-up.

Inspectors from the county's hazardous materials program have been to the site several times and advised the city to create a berm or some other barrier between the two properties, said program director Lew Pascalli. The city also was advised to have dirt from the area tested to determine the exact nature of the spill. While asphalt has a noxious odor, it's not necessarily a health hazard, Pascalli said. The county also will offer to send a public health nurse to visit the Ornelas family, he said.

Ornelas has been living next door for 10 years but said he may move out of concern for the health of his wife and daughter.

"I don't even know if my baby is healthy," Ornelas said. "I'm not willing to take the risk and stay."