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Plaintiffs Charge Rampant Pollution in Stringfellow Case : Courts: Civil trial opens with attorney saying that dumping of chemicals created serious hazards to residents of a nearby town. Ten companies are accused.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a courtroom like few others--with more than 30 attorneys staged in a gallery terraced like bleachers at a ballgame, and 18 computer video monitors for high-tech display of exhibits--allegations began spewing forth Monday in the landmark Stringfellow Acid Pits civil trial.

In the first day of a weeklong series of opening arguments, the attorney for 17 plaintiffs alleged that some of Southern California’s largest manufacturers dumped poisonous chemicals wholesale into unlined chemical ponds near here, only for them to flow into the semirural community of Glen Avon a mile away.

The 10 companies on trial in Superior Court, said plaintiffs’ attorney Doug Welebir, were responsible for dumping 20 million gallons of chemical goop into the ponds at the onetime rock quarry, virtually without regulation.

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Among the defendants are Rohr Industries, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop, Rockwell International and Montrose Chemical Co., as well as the state of California and the county of Riverside for having licensed the industrial waste dumping ground in the first place.

The dump operated with government blessing from 1956 until 1972.

Even though some of the offending companies were involved in cutting-edge aerospace technology, their method of disposing of the residuals of their industry was “the same way cavemen got rid of their waste--they dug a hole and dropped it in,” Welebir said. “It was about as low-tech as you could get.”

The companies, he said, dumped their chemical contents--from arsenic to acids--into the ponds without regard for the chemical reactions that would result. “It made chemical soup, a witch’s brew unlike anything ever created before,” Welebir said.

He said the operator of the dump would empty the ponds to make room for more chemicals, sometimes by spraying the liquid as a mist into the air to help it more quickly evaporate.

On several occasions, Welebir alleged in his opening statement, heavy rains caused the chemical ponds to overflow into the creek that led into Glen Avon. Once, he said, liquids were intentionally released into the creek so the dirt berms around a lower pond would not burst.

There was no doubt the chemicals had flowed into Glen Avon, he said. Telltale foam from industrial detergents was in the stream through town, and so much toxic silt from the Stringfellow dump site had accumulated in Glen Avon that it was trucked back to the dump.

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Even though there was some effort by the dump operator to regulate the kinds of chemicals brought to Stringfellow, Welebir alleged that some of the companies did not fully disclose the contents of their loads, or listed only brand names that did not offer clues to their chemical makeup.

As liquids in the ponds were emptied or evaporated, he said, the dump operator would bulldoze the solid residuals from the bottom and move them to the sides of the ponds as berms, increasing the ponds’ depths for additional dumping.

Dust from the chemically laced dirt berms would be blown off the site at night with the offshore breeze, he said, directly down the box canyon into Glen Avon, where residents would frequently complain of the odor.

Other chemicals percolated into the ground water and drained toward Glen Avon, where they contaminated a well used by an elementary school for drinking water, Welebir charged.

When state officials discovered the toxins in the well water, they ordered the dump operator to investigate. The engineering firm hired by Stringfellow claimed that the pollution was caused by surface runoff from the acid pits after rainstorms, and not from ground water contamination. That consulting firm is targeted by the lawsuit, too.

The trial is expected to last nine months and resolve the cases of just the first 17 of the 3,800 plaintiffs, all Glen Avon residents who have claimed various injuries and property value damage caused by the toxic dump.

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As Welebir unfolded his case, charts, diagrams, maps and documents were displayed on video monitors throughout the room. The 24 jurors--including 12 alternates--watched on their monitors as attorneys for the state, the county and the various manufacturers watched theirs.

With a computer, photographs were turned from one perspective to another, offering an almost three-dimensional aspect. And, like a sports analyst highlighting plays with a computerized grease pencil on a TV screen, an assisting attorney highlighted various pictures and documents with circles and arrows.

Today, Welebir is expected to detail the nature of the injuries alleged by his clients, before the defense attorneys offer their opening statements.

Dump operator James B. Stringfellow already has agreed, in an out-of-court settlement, to pay $8 million in damages to the plaintiffs. Companies that dumped there have paid about $44 million in damages as well, through other settlement agreements.

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