Cleanup of gasoline-laden soil paves way for mikveh

Rabbi Yosef Levin had high hopes he would quickly build the South Bay's first mikveh when Chabad bought a half-acre of Palo Alto land.

That was more than a decade ago. His dream to build a ritual bath evaporated in 1987 when workers bore holes to check soil density as they readied to pour a foundation.

The pungent smell of gasoline suddenly filled the air. And Chabad's woes with contaminated soil and groundwater began.

"It's been 10 years of frustration," Levin said recently.

There is finally an end in sight, however. Last year, the property qualified for cleanup funds from the state. In the fall, contaminated dirt filling 10 dump trucks was hauled away. And now the rabbi hopes the mikveh's construction will progress enough by next winter to catch the rainwater required to inaugurate a proper ritual bath under Jewish law.

The problems that have plagued Chabad began decades before the Lubavitch organization bought the land. The property previously held a now-defunct dairy, which had its own gasoline pumps to fill trucks carrying its products to market. The gasoline storage tanks, which were buried below the pumps, eventually leaked into the soil and water supply as the containers aged.

Chabad's property is one of 28,515 similarly contaminated sites identified in the state, California Water Resources Control Board spokeswoman Fran Vitulli said. Gasoline leaks are considered a health risk because the fluid contains cancer-causing chemicals, such as benzene.

"We're dealing with a serious problem here," Levin said.

When Chabad bought the half-acre in 1985, the previous property owner removed the two underground tanks, and no one gave the situation a second thought.

Chabad moved into the two small office buildings at 3070 Louis Road, leaving space for a future 21-space parking lot and a mikveh.

When Chabad discovered the soil contamination in 1987, two companies estimated the cleanup costs at $50,000 to $100,000. Levin knew Chabad couldn't raise enough money on its own to pay for the mandatory cleanup.

"It was just too expensive," he said.

Chabad unsuccessfully applied to the state for cleanup funds in the late 1980s. About six years ago, Chabad filed a civil lawsuit against the previous owners to pay for the work. Levin is awaiting the results of an arbitration hearing that took place last month.

In the meantime, the uncontaminated parts of the property were converted into a Chabad outreach center, Congregation Ahavas Yisroel-Lubavitch, Gan Yeladim Nursery School and the Torah Academy of Palo Alto.

Eventually, Chabad turned to a neighborhood couple who offered their backyard as an alternative site for the mikveh. Then just about a year ago — the week before Levin planned to request a building permit from the city for the backyard mikveh– a second application to the California Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund got the go-ahead.

The state Legislature created the fund in 1989 to help propel the cleanup of the thousands of contaminated sites. So far, Vitulli said, nearly 8,000 sites throughout the state have been sanitized, with reimbursements from the fund.

In October, consulting geologist David Hoexter said, workers excavated an area on Chabad property that is 20 feet wide, 20 feet long and 12 feet deep. Chabad used $40,000 in earlier mikveh-fund donations to pay for the initial phase of work. Once Chabad gets state reimbursement for the first phase, the second phase can begin.

Workers must now retest the remaining soil for more contamination, Hoexter said. The seepage could be more extensive than originally estimated because groundwater, which is found eight feet below the surface, has probably spread the pollution.

But even if the contamination is more extensive, Hoexter said, the mikveh could safely be built above the contamination level while other soil and water detoxification methods continue below.

Meanwhile, Levin plans to keep working to ensure that the mikveh opens someday. "You can't give up," he said.

Right now, he said, observant Jewish women and men who want to use a mikveh on a regular basis must travel to San Francisco or the East Bay. But in addition to the convenience, he added, a local mikveh would help educate Jews about the importance of the ritual bath and attract observant families to the area. "The mitzvah of mikveh is the most important," Levin said.

After Passover, Levin said, Chabad will begin a drive to raise another $150,000 to construct the mikveh. The two-story building, which will be handicap-accessible, will include two ritual baths with separate entrances — one for men and one for women. The women's side will have two full baths and a shower; the men's side will have a shower. The second floor may be used for storage or eventually for a caretaker's apartment.

Pam Machefsky, a Palo Alto resident who headed the mikveh committee for several years, sees irony in the fact that a bath designed for purification will replace a site known for contamination."To me, it's very typical of what happens in Judaism," she said. "You take the unholy and make it holy."