Fifteen years ago, Penny Newman was a soft-spoken special education teacher, a mother of two whose community activities tended toward PTA and Cub Scout meetings.
But that changed in 1979 when a series of rainstorms led the Stringfellow Acid Pits to overflow into the back yards and school playgrounds of the Riverside County community of Glen Avon, Newman's home.
The toxic brew that caused sneakers and blue jeans to disintegrate also served as a wake-up call for the young suburbanite, who quickly turned into a spokeswoman for Glen Avon residents and eventually became a full-time environmental activist.
Friends and foes alike say Newman's infectious energy and media savvy proved instrumental in bringing the Stringfellow toxic waste issue to the public consciousness.
"There's some people who don't like to hear what she has to say," said neighbor Sally Merha, whose well was contaminated by chemicals from the dump. "But she is very knowledgeable and she does her homework."
On Thursday, Newman, 45, Western director for the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, took a moment to express satisfaction with the $150-million legal agreement by private companies to help government agencies pay for the Stringfellow cleanup.
But only a moment.
"It's just kind of another step in a long journey," she said. ". . . Maybe instead of them sitting in their offices and arguing who pays for what, now they'll have time to actually get out to the site and start doing something. That's the real plus of today's announcement."
Also still to be settled, Newman noted, are a series of civil lawsuits filed by almost 4,000 community residents claiming personal injuries and property damage from the toxic substances dumped at Stringfellow between 1956 and its closing in 1972. The first trial in the case is due to begin late this year.
"(The action Thursday) has to do with what we'll do in the future," Newman said. "Not the damage done to us in the past."
These days, Newman divides her time between Stringfellow and dozens of other dumping issues west of the Rocky Mountains. In recent months, for example, she has provided technical assistance to citizens groups fighting proposals to place a Southern California regional dump just east of Joshua Tree National Monument, and a statewide low-level radiation waste landfill west of Needles.
But despite her regional focus, Newman and her husband, a firefighter, have remained in the same suburban ranch home that they lived in when the pits, two miles to the west, began leaking.
"We felt there was a way to stop the exposure, either by moving yourself or stopping the chemicals from coming down into the area we live in," she said. "We felt we could do the latter."
In recent years, Newman said, initial cleanup efforts have kept the nearly 35 million gallons of cancer-causing wastes dumped into the pits from overflowing into the community again. The new agreement, meanwhile, will help pay to clean up toxic ground water at the site.
Future efforts, all sides agree, must still be made to treat or dispose of the toxic mixture of pesticides, solvents and acids buried at the site.
But all the efforts in the world, Newman said, won't solve the recurring health problems that she attributes to exposure to the chemicals.
"It has an impact on the body's system that doesn't repair itself totally," she said. "One of my problems is asthma and now it's not just triggered from the (Stringfellow) site but quite quickly and violently if I'm exposed to other chemicals. I can't be around cigarette smoke and I have to be very careful even around gasoline vapors."
The pits, Newman said, have also left a permanent sour taste in her mouth for government officials, whom she and neighbors hold responsible for their long-term woes.
"I don't expect much from government anymore, I expect even less from politicians," the former Republican said. "They help you if their agenda coincides with yours.
"But if there's any diversion (between your interests) it won't come down to what is right. It will come down to what's most expeditious for the politician."