Following a press conference last Friday to announce that a federal cleanup of the abandoned Halaco industrial site near Ormond Beach should commence by the end of 2009, Oxnard officials eager for change say they remain confident that the former metals plant will be demolished, although preliminary tests aren’t yet complete.

“The city’s a little ahead of itself right now. We’re in the process of doing a formal evaluation,” Rich Hyatt, a supervisor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said this week.

According to Hyatt, the EPA, which added Halaco to its Superfund list of hazardous waste sites two years ago, must first conduct an engineering evaluation/cost analysis (EE/CA) before any structures on the 40-acre industrial property can be formally removed.

Testing, Hyatt said, should determine which is more worthwhile: demolition or repair of the buildings.

“We intend to do something about the buildings at Halaco. We just haven’t made a final decision,” he said. “My expectation is that the city has had its engineers look at it; we’ve had our folks look at it. I don’t really know until the evaluation’s done.”

The EE/CA, noted Hyatt, will determine if any dangerous materials linger on the Halaco grounds, such as asbestos or poisonous trace elements, which could pose severe health risks to EPA workers. Included in the process, he added, are tests for structural stability. Buildings at the plant, abandoned now for more than five years, are rusted out and weakened.

“The real risk is contaminated debris coming from the buildings,” Hyatt said, “and the threat of collapse, which could cause injury. If any of those things should occur, the risk of contaminants trapped in the building is a concern for us, as well.”

During the EE/CA process, the EPA will embark to Halaco to examine the grounds.

“If you had metals, whatever waste you’re handling is part of the day-to-day operations of the building,” Hyatt explained. “If those are deposited around, you take samples, have them analyzed.”

The EPA’s testing harkens back to two years ago when workers from the federal agency visited the smelting plant under claims that Halaco’s former operators had buried potentially toxic waste underneath the grounds while the plant was in operation. It was during those investigations that Halaco was placed under Superfund status in the EPA’s Southern California “Region 9.”

Considering Halaco’s upgrade to Superfund, Hyatt said, it’s most likely the site will need demolishing, even though a small chance still exists that some rehabilitation work could be effectively carried out.

Oxnard Mayor Tom Holden said he was aware of the EPA’s testing plans, and the possibility for restoration of some Halaco buildings, even though last week’s well-attended press conference did not address this issue.

“My understanding is 99.9 percent sure” the EPA will tear down Halaco, Holden said. “They have to make the commitment to clean up the site, as far as the structures. They know razing them is ultimately what has to happen.”

One portion of the EE/CA is to determine the site cleanup’s final cost, but Hyatt said there’ve been no estimates determined for carrying out both the tests and the cleanup. A previous target cost placed knocking down the entire Halaco site at just less than $100 million in federal funding.

All five City Council members, however, went ahead with the announcement that Halaco’s cleanup was 100 percent certain after being informed that some unused federal funds had become available.

Andres Herrera, the city’s mayor pro tem, was just one of many officials who embarked to Washington, D.C., during the past several months to discuss financing of the project with EPA representatives, especially over legal proceedings regarding the Haack family, former owners of Halaco who abandoned the plant in 2004 and soon after declared bankruptcy.

“One of the hesitancies the EPA had was they (the Haacks) were in bankruptcy, and they haven’t wanted to do anything certain until that was determined,” Herrera says.

But Ormond Beach’s problems with Halaco extend far beyond the dilapidated buildings at the Halaco site. What remains, and what won’t be included in the EPA’s end-of-year cleanup promise, is the future of what local environmentalists dub

“Halaco Mountain” — a towering slag pile of debris, trash and metals left over from the plant’s four decades of operation along the Oxnard coast.

“We’re very happy to hear the EPA is going to remove (the structures),” says Peter Brand of the California Coastal Conservancy. “The biggest and most important thing they can do is remove that pile.”

Coastal watchdogs have warned that the ominous mountain may be actively polluting the water of Ormond Beach’s neighboring lagoons and wetlands. Records from prior EPA studies note that the slag pile contains varying hints of aluminum, lead, copper and also thorium, known for minor amounts of radioactivity.

“Some of those elements have migrated off the pile,” said Brand. “The EPA has acknowledged that and realized that part of any cleanup they do, that some of that property needs to be cleaned up as well.”

According to Brand, the presence of the slag pile clashes with the conservancy’s goal to preserve in perpetuity more wetlands at Ormond. So far, the group has successfully saved at least 540 acres. The next goal is 300 more.

“It’s a place where various water bodies come together, drainages, creeks, a lot of groundwater and seawater exchanges,” he notes. “If we could acquire that property, then we can proceed to the next step of restoration.”

Brand says the Coastal Conservancy is due to release, within the next month, a feasibility study examining ways to restore the Ormond Beach wetlands. According to Herrera, city officials are also scheduled to meet further with the EPA regarding the Halaco cleanup, next week in Sacramento.