Insurers to Pay $93 Million to Clean Up Stringfellow Pits
Lloyd’s of London and 15 other insurers have agreed to pay $93 million to California for cleanup of the Stringfellow acid pits in Riverside County, one of the state’s most notorious Superfund sites.
State officials and environmentalists who have fought for decades for cleanup of the site, in an impoverished rural pocket of the county where children once played in puddles of industrial waste, said the payments were long overdue.
California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer on Tuesday said the Lloyd’s settlement for $49 million was particularly significant because Lloyd’s was one of the major insurers for the state, which was liable for the contaminated site. The company’s attorneys had been leading the defense.
When they agreed to settle late last week, Lockyer said, more than a dozen other insurers quickly fell into line. “They’re the leader of the pack, and so when they’re willing to settle, many of these other companies decided to settle too,” he said.
Some of the other companies include subsidiaries of Chubb Group and Commercial Union; American Reinsurance; St. Paul; and Mutual Fire, Marine & Inland Insurance Co. A trial is set for March in Riverside Superior Court involving nine insurance companies that have not settled.
Lockyer said that although the settlement would not cover the $300 million-plus in cleanup costs, it was a “fair resolution” and a victory in a case that had already dragged on for 15 years and could have cost millions more in legal fees.
“Stringfellow is sort of the poster boy for toxic dump cleanup [in the nation] and all the lessons learned of how hard it is to hold anybody accountable, how litigious these cases are, and how expensive to resolve in the normal legal system,” Lockyer said.
California has spent more than 30 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to try to clean up the site, Lockyer said, and the settlements will allow officials to recoup a major chunk of expenses and focus on remaining defendants.
Local activists agreed.
“This settlement is so important. It means the everyday taxpayer isn’t going to have to pay for the wrongdoings of 200 major corporations and the bad judgment of state bureaucrats,” said Penny Newman, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, who has fought for cleanup of the site for a quarter-century. “Anybody who has had to struggle with their insurance company to get paid ... understands what a big step forward this is.”
Located in the blue-collar community of Glen Avon in Riverside County, Stringfellow was a rock quarry owned by the Stringfellow family. The quarry was turned into an industrial waste site that accepted 35 million gallons of bulk liquid hazardous wastes from hundreds of military, aerospace and other heavy-industry companies between 1956 and 1972.
When it was abandoned by its former owner, the state took over the site and purchased numerous insurance policies to cover the potential liability.
Newman was a young mother of two and a special-education teacher at a local elementary school in 1978 when she and other teachers were told that holding ponds at the nearby Stringfellow dump site had overflowed into the neighborhood after heavy rains. The teachers defied an order not to tell parents, who were already familiar with the acrid stench that emanated from the open, unlined pits.
It was “a real toxic soup of chemicals,” including DDT, chromium, TCE solvents and others, leached from the 20-acre site into the air, ground and drinking water, said Newman.
Ultimately, 3,800 residents were paid $114 million in wrongful-death, property depreciation and injury damages. Newman said she and her children were among those who suffered from neurological diseases, asthma and other problems stemming from exposure to the chemicals, and she received part of the settlement.
In 1983, the state was also sued by many of the companies that had generated waste disposed at the site. Newman said the companies were eager to take advantage of federal law that allowed cleanup costs and blame to be placed on one polluter, and they won. In 1993, the state was found liable for contamination of the acid pits because it regulated them and promoted Stringfellow as a destination for industrial waste.
“Unfortunately, the state was so involved in writing the rules ... how to set it up, how to operate it,” said Lockyer. “And then the state not only did not design it correctly, they didn’t investigate when they learned there was pollution 25 years ago, and they didn’t do anything in a timely way to try to stop the spread of pollution.”
Rockwell, Lockheed, Weyerhaeuser, Northrop, McDonnell Douglas Corp. and others used the site.
Exposure to potential toxins has effectively been eliminated there. Water users no longer rely on local wells, and a cap, dam and extraction systems have been put in place. But a giant waste plume still burgeons underground.
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