A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Monday that residents of the area around the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County may participate fully in a suit filed by state and federal agencies against 31 companies for costs of cleaning up the former toxic waste dump.
Commenting on the order issued by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, environmental activist Penny Newman and the Concerned Neighbors Assn. said, "We are ecstatic . . . because it means the communities that have been so severely affected can be full participants instead of being stepchildren of the court system."
The appellate court's action reversed a ruling handed down by former U.S. District Judge Malcolm M. Lucas in Los Angeles before he was appointed to the state Supreme Court by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Lucas had ruled that the neighbors of the toxic waste dump were adequately represented by the government agencies in the case. In his ruling, Lucas said the residents could take part in the case at the discretion of the trial court but could not make legal claims that the agencies were not putting forth. Lucas also ruled that the neighbors would need permission of the government agencies to gain disclosure of documents relevant to the case.
But the three-judge panel decided the neighbors could play a full, independent role in the case, and sent it back for further proceedings to the new Los Angeles trial judge in the case, U.S. District Judge James Ideman.
Attorney Joel Reynolds of the Center for Law in the Public Interest said the citizens group plans to introduce new elements in the case, including the filing of suits against both the state and federal governments.
"The appellate court agreed with our argument that, as a matter of law, the neighbors have the right to full participation in the court proceedings instead of just being allowed in at the discretion of the judge," Reynolds stated.
He said Newman and the 500-member association are asserting that the state should bear a part of the responsibility for the problems at Stringfellow because it "failed to prevent the situation that now exists."
Reynolds said it is the residents' theory that the federal government also should be held liable for dumping by the U.S. Air Force, which he described as the ninth largest dumper at Stringfellow.
Reynolds also asserted that the federal government could be sued "for political manipulation of the Superfund money under Anne Burford." This was a reference to accusations that Burford, when she was administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, withheld Superfund money for cleaning up Stringfellow in an alleged effort to keep from helping then Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in his 1982 campaign to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Brown was defeated by Republican Pete Wilson in that election.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Donald Robinson, who represented state agencies in the case, declined to comment until he had a chance to review the appellate court order. A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department also refused to say whether Monday's ruling would be appealed.