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Stringfellow Acid Pits

Stringfellow Acid Pits


Aerospace, electronics, and other high-technology businesses expanded rapidly in California during the 1950s, bringing population growth and rapid economic progress. These businesses also brought a huge volume of toxic wastes and the problem of safely disposing of them. A modern-day reminder of those years is the Stringfellow Acid Pits located near the Riverside suburb of Glen Avon, 50 mi (80 km) east of Los Angeles.

The Acid Pits, also known as the Stringfellow Quarry Waste Pits, are located on a 20-acre (8-ha) site in Pyrite Canyon above Glen Avon. In the mid-1950s, a number of high-tech companies began to dump their hazardous wastes into the canyon. No special precautions were taken in the dumping process; as one observer noted, the companies got rid of their wastes just as cavemen did: "They dug a hole and dumped it in."

Over the next two decades, more than 34 million gal (129 million L) of waste were disposed of in a series of panshaped reservoirs dug into the canyon floor. The wastes came from more than a dozen of the nation's most prominent companies, including McDonnell-Douglas, Montrose Chemical, General Electric, Hughes Aircraft, Sunkist Growers, Philco-Ford, Northrop, and Rockwell-International. The wastes consisted of a complex mixture of more than 200 hazardous chemicals . These included hydrochloric, sulfuric, and nitric acids; sodium hydroxide; trichlorethylene and methylene chloride; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); a variety of pesticides; volatile organic compounds (VOCs); and heavy metals such as lead , nickel , cadmium , chromium, and manganese.

By 1972, residents of Glen Avon had begun to complain about health effects caused by the wastes in the Stringfellow Pits. They claimed that some chemicals were evaporating and polluting the town's air, while other chemicals were leaching out of the dump and contaminating the town's drinking-water supply . People attributed health problems to chemicals escaping from the dump; these problems ranged from nose bleeds, emotional distress, and insomnia to cancer and genetic defects. Medical studies were unable to confirm these complaints, but residents continued to insist that these problems did exist.

In November 1972, James Stringfellow, owner of the pits, announced that he was shutting them down. However, his decision did not solve the problem of what to do with the wastes still in the pit. Stringfellow claimed his company was without assets, and the state of California had to take over responsibility for maintaining the site.

The situation at Stringfellow continued to deteriorate under state management. During a March 1978 rainstorm, the pits became so badly flooded that officials doubted the ability of the existing dams to hold back more than 8 million gal (30.3 million L) of wastes. To prevent a possible disaster, they released nearly 1 million gal (3,785 million L) of liquid wastes into flood control channels running through Glen Avon. Children in nearby schools and neighborhoods, not knowing what the brown water contained, waded and played in the toxic wastes.

When the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund) was passed in 1980, the Stringfellow Pits were named the most polluted waste site in California. The pits became one of first targets for remediation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but this effort collapsed in the wake of a scandal that rocked both the EPA and the Reagan administration in 1983. EPA administrators Rita Lavelle and Anne McGill Burford were found guilty of mishandling the Superfund program, and were forced to resign from office along with 22 other officials.

During the early 1990s, citizens of Glen Avon finally began to experience some success in their battle to clean up the pits. The EPA had finally begun its remediation efforts in earnest, and residents won judgments of more then $34 million against Stringfellow and four companies that had used the site. In 1993, residents initiated the largest single civil suit over toxic wastes in history. The suit involved 4,000 plaintiffs from Glen Avon and 13 defendants, including the state of California, Riverside County, and a number of major companies.

See also Contaminated soil; Groundwater pollution; Hazardous waste site remediation; Hazardous waste siting; Storage and transport of hazardous materials

[David E. Newton ]


RESOURCES

BOOKS

Brown, M. H. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

PERIODICALS

Gorman, T. "A Tainted Legacy: Toxic Dump Site in Riverside County Has Sparked the Nation's Largest Civil Suit." Los Angeles Times (January 10, 1993): A3.

Madigan, N. "Largest-Ever Toxic-Waste Suit Opens in California." New York Times (February 5, 1993): B16.

Mydans, S. "Settlements Reached on Toxic Dump in California." New York Times (December 24, 1991): A11.

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