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Huntington, police settle over firing-range cleanup

January 24, 2007|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Ending a five-year legal skirmish that pitted Huntington Beach against its police union, city officials announced Tuesday that the union and other agencies would help pay to decontaminate a portion of Huntington Beach Central Park used for a quarter-century as a firing range.

The Huntington Beach Police Officers Assn.'s $150,000 share is among the nearly $615,000 that the city will collect from organizations that used the now-closed Central Park range, including a sportsmen's club, a police academy and more than a dozen cities in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The settlement, however, was not enough to recoup the $1.1 million the city spent on litigation, much less the estimated $1.5 million to $3 million for cleanup costs.

City Atty. Jennifer McGrath defended the lawsuit as producing "$600,000-plus that the taxpayers of Huntington don't have to pay. I don't think it was money badly spent."

Settlement talks took on new urgency as the suit inched toward a trial scheduled for next month, said Det. Kreg Muller, president of the union, which has about 200 members. The agreement also shielded the union from any further litigation related to the cleanup. The group's insurance company -- which is also the city's insurer -- is covering the payout.

A recent change in city administration has helped ease strained relationships, Muller said.

The police union in 1971 began leasing 5 acres in Central Park and training Huntington Beach officers at the firing range. Other cities, including Bell, Gardena, Manhattan Beach, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, also used the grounds, adjacent to the recently completed sports complex in Central Park.

The shooting range became grist for controversy in the mid-1990s, with residents complaining about noise and safety. In 1996, a bullet pierced the window of a nearby home.

Soon after, the City Council terminated the union's lease. Soil testing found that the area's dirt was tainted with enough lead -- presumably from bullets -- to be considered hazardous waste.

Exposure to high levels of lead can cause headaches, hearing problems and slowed growth in children, and nerve disorders, high blood pressure and reproductive problems in adults.

In 2001, Huntington Beach sued the police association, asking for help with the cleanup cost. A few years later, the city added to the suit other agencies that had trained at the range.

"It's been a long, tough battle," said Mayor Gil Coerper, a retired police officer. "Both the city and the association thought they were right."

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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