State officials said last week that they will begin removing hazardous materials from an area formerly used in the disposal of refinery waste.

Representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave an update on the proposed cleanup of a 63,000-square-foot portion of the Ballard Sand Pits, which are located in a rural Calallen area that consists of 296 acres of property. The land was found in 2003 to pose "an unacceptable risk to human health," after samples taken by the Railroad Commission during a site assessment showed numerous hydrocarbon compounds, including benzene.

TCEQ officials said the nearest drinking water intakes serve more than 284,000 people and are located about two miles downstream of the pits.

Barry Lands, project manager, said the state is concerned about the site, located at the end of Ballard Drive near County Road 73, primarily because of the flooding that occurs in the area. Since the pits are within a half mile of the Nueces River and flood waters have inundated the impoundments in the past, state officials said "the potential for releases of hazardous substances from the impoundments into the Nueces River is a concern."

Lands said precautions will be taken to prevent drinking water from being contaminated.

"We believe we will be able to get this material out without getting into the groundwater," Lands said.

County Judge Loyd Neal said he was familiar with the Ballard Sand Pits during his previous tenure as mayor of Corpus Christi, but not the severity of the situation.

"I was not aware until recently about the extent of the contamination," Neal said. "I'm pleased that the TCEQ is going in there and getting this done."

The land in question was previously used for the distribution of sand and gravel. During the 1960s, however, the Brine Services Co. used the property for storage of oilfield drilling mud and disposal of refinery waste. In 1968, the Texas Water Quality Board issued an order requiring Brine Services to cease all waste disposal at the property.

The land is currently owned by the C.F. Ballard Residuary Trust of Robstown.

The cleanup is expected to cost the state between $2 million and $4.5 million, depending on the amount of processing that will be needed for the tar-like substance currently in the pits. Lands said the El Centro landfill, located in Robstown, will not accept the material in its softer form.

"It must be solidified first," Lands said, adding that it could be processed on site or at the landfill before disposal. "We believe that when we complete this, there will no longer be a threat to the citizens of this county."

Residents near the site, particularly in the Twin Lakes Subdivision, will also notice a strong odor coming from the site, but Lands said that is to be expected and should pose no danger to the public.

"There may be some discomfort experienced by residents, but our main project is to remove this material and get it to a landfill," Lands said.

Work is expected to begin within 60 days, state officials said, and will last six to eight weeks. Dump trucks will be used to haul the contaminated soil to the landfill and will be covered "to prevent dirt from flying out."