When Pam and Emmett Badar purchased their three-bedroom house in the Hearthstone development in West Covina a decade ago, they thought they had finally secured an important piece of the American dream.
Six months after they moved in, Pam Badar said, they found themselves in an environmental nightmare. A “rotten egg” odor wafted across the street from the rolling hills where she said they were told a golf course was to be built. That is when they discovered that their dream home overlooked the BKK landfill--then a repository for up to 3,000 pounds of toxic waste a day trucked in from all over Southern California.
BKK Corp. has insisted all along that its toxic waste disposal operation has never been hidden from the public and that it poses no health risk to nearby residents.
166 Plaintiffs in Suit
But that did not comfort the Badars, who, in 1981, joined 164 other Hearthstone residents in filing a trio of lawsuits against BKK, W & A Builders Inc., developer of the Hearthstone tract, and several other parties, claiming that they became sick from the stench and were deprived of enjoyment of their property.
“When we moved there, there were hills and green trees and cattle grazing across the street,” said the Badars, who have since moved to San Dimas. “By the time we left, there was a 200-foot-high berm with nothing but tubes coming out for the gases they burn off.”
This week, the Badars and their neighbors are scheduled to have their day in court.
Their lawsuits--which attorneys for both sides say make up one of the largest and most complex toxic waste cases in state history--have been consolidated into one jury trial set to begin Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court before Judge Bonnie Lee Martin. Because of the large number of plaintiffs, the lawyers said they probably will try the case in segments involving 15 to 20 plaintiffs at a time. The trial is expected to last up to five months.
The plaintiffs are seeking more than $150 million in general and punitive damages against BKK, the primary defendant in the suit. The suit alleges that “odors, stench, noxious gases and smells” emanating from BKK are injurious to their health and have interfered with the enjoyment of their lives and property.
Dump Opened in 1963
The 583-acre dump has been operating near the corner of Azusa Avenue and Amar Road since 1963, when the closest neighbor was a dairy farm. The dump became licensed to accept toxic waste in 1968. Housing tracts such as Hearthstone began going up in the mid-1970s.
Claremont attorney Herbert Hafif, who represents the homeowners and contends that BKK has been mismanaged, said the trial is particularly important because it will focus public attention on what he believes is society’s overall failure to properly dispose of toxic wastes.
Charles Vogel, the lawyer for BKK, said the trial will show that BKK, which stopped receiving toxic waste in late 1984, serves an essential public service in the disposal of waste. “There’s a very important question about whether or not such a claim should be pursued against a facility that has been in operation for a very long time,” he said. “It was the very last place for disposal of hazardous waste in Southern California.”
The next closest dump licensed to accept toxic waste is north of Santa Barbara.
Christopher Bisgaard, the attorney for Santa Monica-based W & A Builders, which is accused of negligence and misrepresentation, refused to comment on the case. The suits seek several million dollars in damages against W & A, but Hafif said settlement talks with the company are continuing.
Also named in the lawsuits are Professional Brokers Inc., a defunct real estate company that sold the houses, the city of West Covina and the state. The city and the state were removed as defendants two years ago by a Pomona Superior Court judge.
‘Something Going On’
“We have a claim against the builders because we don’t feel they told our people enough,” Hafif said. “But our main claim is against the dump. Everything flows from them.
“There is little question our people knew there was ‘something going on’ over there. They (home buyers) were handed documents that said it was a vacant sanitary landfill.”
Hafif maintains that his clients were not told the dump was licensed to accept toxic materials, including vinyl chloride, asbestos and infectious hospital waste.
Vogel denied that privately owned BKK had misled residents about its activities, adding that the dump was operating long before Hearthstone was built in 1977.
“It (BKK) was the only Class 1 (toxic waste) facility in Southern California,” he said. “It was no secret. They weren’t hiding anything. From the subdivision they would have seen any activity at the landfill. There are an awful lot of rubbish trucks going up Azusa Avenue (to the dump).”
Hafif said he will present evidence that there has been a higher-than-normal incidence of cancer-related deaths among people living near the dump, but declined to provide details.
State Study Cited
Vogel contends that BKK’s operation has never endangered the residents. “The (state) Department of Health Services has made a study and reported there were no health problems,” Vogel said. “We’re not saying people did not smell odors from time to time, but we do not believe they have any legitimate health problems that they can relate to BKK.”
However, at the recommendation of the state health agency, West Covina last week imposed a 45-day moratorium on new construction on eight other residential parcels within a mile of the dump while state health officials evaluate possible health dangers.
Vogel said that BKK, which handled toxic wastes from the late 1960s until a year and a half ago, was a well-run business “in the forefront of technology.” He said the company has a sophisticated “state-of-the-art” methane gas recovery system. “I think we will be able to prove there isn’t a better system operating at any other landfill.”
Badar, who said her house sold last fall after three years on the market, remains a skeptic. Badar says she and her three children suffered chronic health problems while living in the Hearthstone tract, and she is eager to tell the jury about her troubles. “I hope it becomes up front with this case,” Badar said.
“I am totally relieved I am away from that area,” she said. “It was like living at the Athens airport, and for nourishment, they give me Jalisco cheese and Italian wine and tell me to take a Tylenol capsule and not to worry.”