Small town worries about pollution, health

The Associated Press
Friday November 03, 2000



WILLITS— When Victoria Titus moved to this small Northern California town, she thought her children would have a safe place to grow up. Now, she says, her family suffers from such ailments as kidney failure and seizures. 

Titus and others in this town billed as “The Gateway to the Redwoods,” blame Remco Hydraulics, a company that polluted for more than 40 years before going bankrupt in 1995. Now Remco’s owners are battling insurance companies over the company’s claims, keeping at bay the money to pay for testing residents who say they’re sick from the pollution. 

In the meantime, the residents wait and worry. 

“I cannot believe that any of that funding can be dependent on the making good of insurance policies,” Jane Gurko, a retired professor, told U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston in a Monday hearing for residents to air their concerns and questions. “I hope in the decree it can be turned around so there’s money for people who’ve actually been affected.” 

About 200 residents of the 5,000-person town claim they suffer from pollution-related ailments. 

A court settlement last year between the city and Whitman Corp. – Remco’s parent company – requires at least $2 million be put in a fund for the medical monitoring of residents. According to the agreement, only insurance money can be used for that fund. 

If the court decides in favor of Whitman, the insurance money left over after Whitman is reimbursed for its expenses – including cleanup of the site – will pay for the residents to be screened to see if they were exposed to toxins that made them sick. But the fund doesn’t provide money for treatment if they indeed are sick from contamination. 

Titus wants to know if the sicknesses that have afflicted her family are, in fact, caused by the company’s dumping. 

“I think they should test us,” she said at the hearing, and many echoed her sentiment. 

The settlement also required Whitman to set up two other funds to compensate for damages to natural resources and the city, and to monitor the site into the future. Both of those funds are empty. Meanwhile, Whitman and the insurance companies haggle in court. 

Few deny that Remco, which made hydraulics equipment for the U.S. Department of Defense, polluted the ground with chromium 6 and other chemicals at its 3.5-acre site and at a couple of other sites around town. But residents and the company differ on the extent and effect of the pollution. 

The site was investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the 1980s as a Superfund site, but it has not made the national priorities list. The city sued Whitman in 1996, a year after the plant – at one time the city’s largest employer – closed. They settled in 1997, but the settlement was amended last year to set up an annual fund from Whitman for cleanup. 

People who live near the contaminated sites and say the pollution made them sick have to prove the chemicals moved from the sites toward them in concentrations that could cause their illnesses.  

The illnesses also have to be the kind people could get from the chemicals. That has yet to be done, said David Drell of the Willits Environmental Center established by local citizens. 

Santa Cruz resident Leslie Hernandez believes the pollution killed her 5-year-old son in 1997, after he played in a nearby creek while the family visited the city. The coroner’s report said the boy, who had mild hemophilia, died from internal bleeding in his stomach. 

“He never had a problem with cuts, scrapes,” Hernandez said. “We believe they dumped and he got runoff residue.” 

Illston dismissed Hernandez’s case, but Erin Brockovich’s law firm has taken Hernandez’s appeal. Brockovich is the law clerk made famous in a movie named after her. 

About 100 residents have sued, said Bill Simpich, one of the attorneys representing them, and another 100 people are expected to sue. 

Illston took the unusual step of leaving her San Francisco courtroom Monday to take a tour of the Remco plant to listen to residents.  

For two hours, she heard resident after resident tell her about waterways that ran yellow with pollution, about waiting when they were children for a truck from Remco to dump what they now believe was polluted water so they could play in it, and about a host of sicknesses they think resulted from this exposure, such as cancer, reproductive problems and migraines. 




Gerald Duncan, a former Remco worker, said he saw the company dump at various sites in the town, “especially at night, especially when it was raining,” to dilute the chemicals. 

“I know this for a fact because I was there,” he said. 

Marilyn Underwood, a toxicologist with the state health department, which is assessing the site, urged Illston to put the medical monitoring fund at the top of her list. 

“It seems like it might be something that would help this community,” she said. 

Barbara Guibard, who represents Whitman, said the company is focusing on cleaning up the site. 

“I think it’s important that studies to date have shown that the site today poses no public health risks,” she said. 

Not all agree that Remco has harmed the community. 

Marvin Hansard, who lives across the street from the site, said he never had any problems with the company in the 28 years he has lived there. 

“I think the environmental problem has been blown out of proportion,” he said. “They’ve done test drills throughout this immediate area but never found anything.” 

Floyd Brandt, principal for the past 10 years of Baechtel Grove School across the street from Remco, said he has never heard complaints from students and has not experienced any problems with Remco. 

“I’m sure there are pollutants in the ground just as there are around any gas station,” he said. “They’ve tested the well waters here, and my understanding is it’s always come back negative.” 

Whitman has set up a court-mandated trust to clean up the site. Over the last two years, Whitman has given the trust $11 million, including a $7 million loan. 

However, that money is just for cleanup. In the future, the amount of money Whitman allocates for cleanup will be negotiated each year, based on need, Guibard said. 

Illston will consider the comments given at the hearing before deciding how the company and the city should continue with their agreement. The next hearing is set for Nov. 17 in Illston’s San Francisco courtroom.