BURBANK — As their attorneys shuffle between four similar lawsuits that allege the Walt Disney Co. has for decades contaminated groundwater with cancer-causing chromium 6 and other toxic chemicals, stories of ill health from the plaintiffs are beginning to emerge.
In the latest lawsuit, filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court by the Sacramento-based firm Kershaw Cutter & Ratinoff LLP on behalf of 16 people with strong ties to the Rancho District, the plaintiffs claim Disney dumped wastewater contaminated with hexavalent chromium from its on-site cooling systems down the centerline of Parkside Avenue, toward Parish Place and across Riverside Drive into the so-called Polliwog, an 11-acre parcel near the studio’s Imagineering facilities.
“The water, without warning, would rush down like a flood,” said resident Bob Bell, who in 1945 paid $25,000 for his home at the corner of Parkside Avenue. “Water hopped the curb and flooded the streets for hours on end.”
While Bell is not part of the lawsuit, plaintiffs first became aware of the alleged toxic contaminants, including chromium 6, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, in February, after a representative of Environmental World Watch revealed results of an ongoing soil investigation. Plaintiff Sue Panuska said she has long suspected contamination.
“We live in one of the most beautiful areas of Los Angeles in a neighborhood that has come to be known as the city’s best-kept secret,” said Panuska, one of 16 residents who joined the June 9 lawsuit. “But contamination of the Polliwog has been the neighborhood’s dirty little secret. We’re hoping that because Disney created this carnage, that they will come forward and clean it up.”
Panuska is one of a handful of residents who fiercely opposed a planned sewer project by the city of Los Angeles. At the time, she spearheaded a neighborhood effort to raise $5,000 to test for toxic chemicals as part of a challenge to the draft environmental impact report.
Standing at the intersection of Parkside Avenue and Parish Place, Panuska gestured down several neighboring streets, pointing out the homes whose residents she said were diagnosed with various cancers, and listing off dozens of cases where horses, dogs and cats came down with various maladies.
Disney officials have denied all of the charges in the lawsuits, and last week pointed to an October 2006 soil investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control that found chromium levels in the area “below levels of concern” and well within state and EPA regulations.
“In light of this, we believe these lawsuits are grossly inaccurate and meritless,” spokesman Jonathan Friedland said.
On Beachwood Drive, plaintiff Dennis Weisenbaugh reflected on the life of his office manager, Gene Montoya, who two years ago died of liver failure after eight years of working eight-hour days from his home office.
Three of Weisenbaugh’s horses were diagnosed with diseases similar to laminitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, and had to be put down. At the Polliwog this weekend, large groups of children played tag and several more rode bicycles. The undeveloped site — hemmed in by West Riverside Drive, South Reese Place, South Beachwood Drive and the Ventura (134) Freeway — regularly sees horses and riders, and high school athletes train for cross-country meets at the facility, Weisenbaugh said.
“There are other places to play,” he said. “Keep them out of there until we know it’s safe.”
Plaintiffs William and Robin McCall, whose house looks out onto Parish Place, organized a May 14 neighborhood meeting to discuss the issue.
“We’re afraid of the consequences of living in this house,” said Robin McCall, whose husband began to develop “huge open sores that itched and oozed” three years ago. “Ultimately, I care more about the bodies than I do property. I want the Polliwog and homes that are contaminated to be cleaned up.”
Plaintiffs in the June 9 suit are seeking damages for restitution, “disgorgement of profits” and compensation for any damage to surrounding property values. Testing of the Polliwog parcel, which is owned by the city of Los Angeles, discovered “significant quantities” of chromium 6, according to the June 3 lawsuit filed by resident Dennis Jackson and Environmental World Watch, a Delaware corporation with offices in North Hollywood.
The lawsuit alleges that Disney has contaminated wastewater with chromium 6 from its on-site cooling systems since 1988. The organization also claims that recent tests show dirt dust and micro-fine hexavalent particles migrated off the Polliwog property, attaching to clothing, shoes, hair and horse hooves to such an extent that anyone walking on the parcel would be exposed to the toxic chemicals and carry residue with them, according to the lawsuit.
C. Brooks Cutter, attorney for the plaintiffs, would not comment on the lawsuits.