Addressing one of the most complex legal dilemmas ever to confront the federal Superfund program, a federal judge in Los Angeles has held 13 companies that dumped or transported hazardous wastes to the Stringfellow Acid Pits liable for cleanup costs that could approach $100 million.
In a ruling issued late Thursday, U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman also held the Riverside County dump's present and former owners responsible for the expensive task of halting a plume of toxic groundwater from the site that threatens a major source of drinking water in the Los Angeles Basin.
"This ruling establishes that those who dumped the toxic wastes at Stringfellow must pay for the costs of cleaning up this dangerous site. They cannot shift the burden to innocent taxpayers," Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said Friday.
Although only the first step in determining how cleanup costs will ultimately be divided, the court's ruling is important because it holds hazardous waste generators responsible under the federal Superfund law, despite evidence that they had lawfully deposited wastes over the years at a state-approved dump site.
Moreover, it eliminates the need for the federal government to undergo the costly and time-consuming process of proving comparative responsibility on the part of an estimated 200 companies that have deposited waste at the 22-acre site near Glen Avon since 1956, imposing total liability on large, wealthy generators like the Northrop Corp., McDonnell Douglas Corp. and Rockwell International Corp.
Although Ideman left the way open for companies to present evidence later about their individual degrees of liability, attorneys for residents near the dump predicted that the ruling would provide a basis for speedy settlement of the case.
"Hopefully, now we can get on with starting to resolve the actual problems at the site and not fighting about who's going to pay for it anymore," said Fred Woocher of the Center for Law in the Public Interest.
Lawyers for the waste generators have argued that holding companies jointly and severally liable for cleanup costs provides "an intolerable vehicle for oppressive selective enforcement of judgments against the government's political enemies."
They said they will consider an appeal.
"I don't have much to say except that I'm sorry we lost," said Peter R. Taft, who represented Northrop and Rockwell in the case.
Although Congress clearly intended hazardous waste generators to pay for cleanup costs when it adopted the Superfund law in 1980, the Stringfellow site presents legal questions never addressed in cases involving other dump sites.
Most important is the near impossibility of drawing a direct line of responsibility for toxic waste released from the site.
From 1956 to 1972, at which time the dump was closed, more than 200 companies dumped an estimated 33.9 million gallons of hazardous wastes, some highly toxic, some only moderately so. Mingling in Stringfellow's acid pools over the years, the materials in many cases combined to form even more dangerous compounds.
Some companies argued that the kind of materials they dumped actually acted to neutralize some of the most hazardous acids at the pits. Some presented evidence that the materials they dumped were not present in the toxic groundwater plume that has begun migrating toward Glen Avon.
In his ruling, Ideman concurred with the federal government, which originally filed suit against the waste generators and the companies that transported the wastes, holding that it is "theoretically and practically" impossible to sort out who is responsible for what "due to the synergistic effects of the commingling of different wastes."
"Therefore, the court concludes that the harm is indivisible and that the defendants are jointly and severally liable," Ideman wrote.
The judge left open the possibility of weighing factors such as the amount of waste a company has deposited during the second phase of the case, in which actual damages are apportioned, to assure that firms which deposited only a few gallons of waste are not held liable for massive cleanup costs.
But he rejected a key argument shared by nearly all of the defendants: That it is the state of California, and not the waste generators, which is responsible for cleanup costs.
State officials first approached the Stringfellow family in the 1950s about opening a hazardous waste site on the remote canyon property, ostensibly at the request of local government and business leaders who were demanding a reliable and convenient hazardous waste disposal site to serve burgeoning industrial development in Southern California.
A state-appointed geologist surveyed the Stringfellow site before it opened, concluding that it was underlain by impermeable granite bedrock that would provide a safe and permanent resting place for toxic chemicals. Companies which dumped there over the years did so based on permits issued by the state.