Town Haunted by Fears of Its Past
Donna Avila’s backyard is 15 feet from the vast site of a closed factory she believes is responsible for an assortment of health problems in this Northern California community that calls itself the “Gateway to the Redwoods.”
“We’ve been poisoned,” Avila told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There is no way that there can be so many problems and something not be wrong.”
More than 60 plaintiffs blame contamination from the Remco Hydraulics plant for illnesses. A ruling is expected by May on whether their case will be heard in federal or state court, according to Avila’s Oakland lawyer, Bill Simpich.
Residents are deeply divided over the case; some are worried mainly that the publicity will keep tourists away or lower the value of their homes.
“No town wants to be thought of as having a toxic site in it,” said David Drell, head of the nonprofit Willits Environmental Center. “But the story of this plant needs to be told.”
Remco was founded in 1957 by business baron Bob Harrah, who became one of the town’s leading employers and power brokers, serving on the Planning Commission, the City Council and the high school Board of Trustees, directing a bank and being appointed board chairman of the town’s only hospital.
Chrome plating for parts began in 1963, prompting numerous complaints about strange smells and chemicals and a warning by county health officials that the plant appeared to be violating environmental regulations.
But Remco kept dumping waste. Runoff poured into nearby Baechtel Creek. Rooftop ventilation fans blew fumes toward Baechtel Grove Middle School, across the street.
Remco struggled as the defense industry declined. It was sold and resold, eventually declaring bankruptcy. After it closed in 1995, the city of Willits sued, demanding that the former owners clean up the site.
By then, Harrah had died of cancer. A federal judge ultimately ruled that Chicago-based Whitman Corp., which began life as the Illinois Central Railroad, was accountable.
In 1997, Whitman agreed under a court-mediated consent decree to fund an independent trust charged with investigating and cleaning up the site. The actual work, which could take 30 years and more than $50 million, has not yet begun.
“We absolutely believe there is no health threat whatsoever,” said Barbara Guibord, a Chicago attorney representing Whitman. “Lots of people get cancer,” she said, “and it’s not because they live in Willits.”
Janice Goebel, an investigator with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, said levels of chromium in the ground water run as high as 336,000 parts per billion, well above the 0.2 ppb exposure limit set by her agency.
“It’s a significantly contaminated site. The concentrations of chromium are the highest I’ve seen,” Goebel said.
City officials and at least one local doctor say the drinking water is safe.
Dr. Mills Matheson, who has practiced in Willits since 1974, said “there’s no route of exposure” between the contaminated ground water and nearby residents, and that the chance of one’s health being affected by eating chromium-tainted fruits and vegetables “is so tiny that it’s very unlikely.”
“The danger was in the past. What that danger was, we don’t know,” Matheson said.
No epidemiological tests can resolve that question, said William Wright, head of the cancer surveillance section at the state Department of Health Services. “There is no such thing as a single study that would put all these issues to rest.”
But Florence Dilling, whose children played in the creek and drank water from a well downstream from the plant, has her suspicions. Her grandson was born with muscular dystrophy, her granddaughter was born with a brain tumor, and her 53-year-old son was diagnosed in 1996 with diabetes.
“I have no proof that any of this is connected to that plant,” said Dilling, 76, her eyes tearing. “But I remember that odor.”
Other residents say negative publicity might affect real estate values and tourism, which accounts for about 20% of the town’s revenues.
“I think people are making a big deal about nothing,” said Clinton Wilson, manager of the Computer Cave on Main Street.
Mary Vest, a real estate broker, said average homes cost about $150,000, in part because the town has succeeded in playing down the contamination.