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Cleaning up the Ascon waste site's nastiness

April 15, 2004

VIC LEIPZIG AND LOU MURRAY

Something may be seriously amiss in southeast Huntington Beach.

According to a recent report in the Orange County Weekly, four

children from that area died between February 2000 and June 2003 of a

deadly brain cancer called brainstem glioma.

This is an exceedingly rare cancer. Data from the Central Brain

Tumor Registry of the United States indicates that only six out of

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every million children younger than 15 are diagnosed each year with

this invariably fatal cancer. Yet there have been four cases in

southeast Huntington Beach in recent years.

We know that a cluster of cancers in one geographic area doesn't

necessarily mean that there is something in the immediate environment

that caused it. People who contract cancer aren't uniformly

distributed over the map. We also know that it is impossible to

gather meaningful statistics with only four cases.

The causes of most childhood brain tumors, including brainstem

gliomas, are unknown. But we do know that exposure to certain

chemicals can cause cancer. Our industrialized society provides a

multitude of opportunities for exposure.

A prime candidate for a source of cancer-causing chemicals in

southeast Huntington Beach is the Ascon/NESI dump, a California EPA

Superfund toxic waste site at the southwest corner of Hamilton Avenue

and Magnolia Street. It seems suspicious to us that four children who

lived and played near this toxic waste dump contracted an extremely

rare cancer.

The 38-acre Ascon site has served as a dumping ground for a

variety of liquid and solid wastes since 1938. Early deposits were

mostly waste from oil-drilling operations. From 1957 to 1971,

however, the toxics that were dumped included industrial hazardous

wastes such as chromic acid, sulfuric acid, aluminum slag, phenolic

compounds and styrene.

Disposal of hazardous waste stopped in 1971. After that, inert

materials such as abandoned vehicles, asphalt, concrete, metal and

other debris were dumped until the site closed in 1984. In light of

today's values for coastal real estate, it's incredible to us that

someone would have chosen a site so near the ocean for a toxic waste

dump. It is also incredible -- disturbing is a better word -- that a

community park, an elementary school and a high school were built

right across the street from it.

The Ascon site currently has five 25-foot-deep lagoons of liquid

petroleum waste. A plume of hydrocarbons has spread out underground

from these lagoons. More than a half-dozen pits of toxic waste are

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