A California tale of EPA intrigue and angry residents

Ruth Kirkby tried to explain at a school board meeting in 1969 that for most of a year schoolchildren had been drinking water laced with hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal toxin.

No one stirred.

Toxic waste was not a familiar public issue, and in this Jurupa mountain school district about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, it set off no alarms.

But when Mrs. Kirkby added that waste from chemical toilets was among the contaminants in the school well, she says, the school board ''went through the roof. It offended their sensibilities.''

Chemical toilet waste, she explains, is a very minor toxin compared to the potent and long-lived heavy metal acids.

There is no clear evidence that the school well was actually contaminated. But to Mrs. Kirkby, a local resident and a paleobotanist, this was a frustrating example of how little was understood about the hazardous chemicals that were being dumped at Stringfellow Acid Pits which is about a mile uphill from the school.

The acid pits have a history of insidious surprises. Their effects, like those of other toxic waste dumps, have been misgauged and underestimated at every turn. And the pits have become a breeding ground for cynicism.

The latest wrinkle is that the Stringfellow site is figuring in the national controversy over whether partisan politics was involved in the management of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund for toxic waste cleanup.

A key charge under investigation is that Rita Lavelle, who administered these funds in Washington until she was recently fired from the EPA, withheld money from Stringfellow until then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. was safely defeated by Pete Wilson in his US Senate bid.

But that's not the big concern in the communities downhill from Stringfellow. After more than 10 years of trying to get the area cleaned up, toxic waste is still flowing toward underground water supplies.

''Stringfellow Acid Pits as it is today will be a problem to the whole country in perpetuity,'' says Riverside County Supervisor Melba Dunlap, whose district includes the pits. The reason, she explains, is that the dump has always been treated in an offhand manner by government agencies.

''This was such a different kind of site that nobody knew how to handle it. They didn't listen to the people who really did know; (several community members warned officials of potential problems in the treatment) and rushed to get it out of sight and out of mind.''

A year ago the open ponds of multicolored, strong-smelling chemicals at the pits overflowed during heavy rainstorms and washed down toward the community of Glen Avon.

They were opened in 1954, when a state geologist decided that granite bedrock beneath the pits made a natural basin. When a 1969 flood washed acids out across the area below, a concrete dam was erected across the foot of the pits.

But by 1972, leaks were noticed around the base of the dam. The granite bedrock was decomposed and full of cracks. The waste acids of some 224 companies had been leaking into groundwater since 1954. Stringfellow Quarry Company shut down the dump, went broke trying to patch it up, and abandoned it in 1976.

The underground plume of acid contamination extends at least three-quarters of a mile downhill toward the groundwater supplies for about 10,000 people. The closest town is Glen Avon, a little over a mile away. Last summer three-quarters of the waste was either removed from the site or neutralized chemically, and for the second time a gel was injected into the granite cracks to harden and seal them. As on the first try, Supervisor Dunlap says, the acids dissolved the gel.

A new underground clay dam was built later in an attempt to contain groundwater leaching. The whole pond area was covered in a 22-acre, 12 -inch-thick clay cap, covered with a foot of soil. Now there is concern that the cap is eroding and that the clay was not of a high enough grade to prevent deterioration from the weather.

Underground springs were later found which feed into the ponds, and currently 15,000 to 20,000 gallons of contaminated water are being trucked away daily to keep down the water level under the cap.

The California Department of Health, recently given charge of the dumpsite, pegs the minimum cleanup figure at $18 million now - up from the $6.1 million it applied to the EPA for last summer.

Experts are trying to determine the size and shape of the underground pollution plume using the methods of mining geologists. Once the outline of the plume is found, they say, its spread can be checked by pumping.

Tom Bailey, manager of the state's cleanup fund at the health department, is optimistic about reaching an agreement with the EPA by the end of this month for at least some of the money the project will require.

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