Becoming a community activist was not in Penny Newman's plans. The soft-spoken special education teacher figured being a mother and leading an occasional PTA meeting were enough to keep life interesting.
But then came the winter of 1979, when heavy rains caused the Stringfellow acid pits to overflow onto the Riverside County community of Glen Avon, Newman's home. As residents watched in horror, a foamy, chemical stream flooded back yards and the elementary school playground. Sneakers and blue jeans disintegrated in the toxic soup.
"That was my awakening," Newman, 42, recalled. "We were all taught to believe authorities, not to question things. I guess I realized that year my trust was misplaced."
Since then, Newman's life has been turned virtually inside out. The teaching career was abandoned and Newman focused her energy on pushing for a cleanup of the acid pits, where 34 million gallons of chemicals had been dumped legally between 1956 and 1972.
By poring over technical reports "with a dictionary beside me so I could look up the big words," Newman soon became the local authority on the dump, viewed widely as the nation's most complex toxic site because of its mix of chemicals and a treacherous plume of contaminated ground water that already has migrated three miles.
Newman's Glen Avon neighbors say her grasp of toxic waste issues makes her credibility among technical experts unassailable.
"She is not one of these so-called 'hysterical housewife' types at all," said Sally Merha, whose well was contaminated by chemicals from the dump. "She gets her facts straight."
"Penny speaks with a whisper and makes people listen," added fellow activist John Sheldon.
Even those frequently at odds with Newman over Stringfellow applaud her dedication: "While . . . we don't always agree on the technical aspects and the policy aspects of what's being done at Stringfellow, (we) generally respect Penny and her work," said Bob Borzelleri of the state Department of Health Services, one of the agencies coordinating the cleanup.
Newman concedes that life in the eye of the storm has been difficult, and at one point she thought about moving. The house was listed but didn't sell, and so the battle continued.
Many forces keep Newman plugging away. She believes her health problems--including several benign tumors, the loss of feeling in one thumb and a recurring tremor that often makes her handwriting illegible--were caused by the toxic dump. Newman also is convinced that her two children, dogged by an assortment of medical troubles, "were robbed" of good health because of exposure to chemicals from the site.
While Stringfellow remains a compelling interest, Newman now has a salaried position with the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, a national group that educates communities on pollution issues. This year, she has helped block construction of a hazardous waste incinerator in Washington state and played a similar role in Jerome, Ariz.
The work is rewarding, and Newman does not plan to give it up.
"Once you see how companies get away with hurting people and how government is at best disinterested and at worst one of the culprits, I think there's an outrage that you just can't turn away from," she said. "In some ways, ignorance is bliss. Because once your eyes are opened you can't back away from it."