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A California tale of EPA intrigue and angry residents

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Ruth Kirkby tried to explain at a school board meeting in 1969 that for most of a year schoolchildren had been drinking water laced with hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal toxin.

No one stirred.

Toxic waste was not a familiar public issue, and in this Jurupa mountain school district about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, it set off no alarms.

But when Mrs. Kirkby added that waste from chemical toilets was among the contaminants in the school well, she says, the school board ''went through the roof. It offended their sensibilities.''

Chemical toilet waste, she explains, is a very minor toxin compared to the potent and long-lived heavy metal acids.

There is no clear evidence that the school well was actually contaminated. But to Mrs. Kirkby, a local resident and a paleobotanist, this was a frustrating example of how little was understood about the hazardous chemicals that were being dumped at Stringfellow Acid Pits which is about a mile uphill from the school.

The acid pits have a history of insidious surprises. Their effects, like those of other toxic waste dumps, have been misgauged and underestimated at every turn. And the pits have become a breeding ground for cynicism.

The latest wrinkle is that the Stringfellow site is figuring in the national controversy over whether partisan politics was involved in the management of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund for toxic waste cleanup.

A key charge under investigation is that Rita Lavelle, who administered these funds in Washington until she was recently fired from the EPA, withheld money from Stringfellow until then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. was safely defeated by Pete Wilson in his US Senate bid.

But that's not the big concern in the communities downhill from Stringfellow. After more than 10 years of trying to get the area cleaned up, toxic waste is still flowing toward underground water supplies.

''Stringfellow Acid Pits as it is today will be a problem to the whole country in perpetuity,'' says Riverside County Supervisor Melba Dunlap, whose district includes the pits. The reason, she explains, is that the dump has always been treated in an offhand manner by government agencies.

''This was such a different kind of site that nobody knew how to handle it. They didn't listen to the people who really did know; (several community members warned officials of potential problems in the treatment) and rushed to get it out of sight and out of mind.''


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