Huntington Beach landfill outrage spurs school officials to address health concerns

Orange County Register |

--Chastised by parents upset with fumes from a toxic landfill cleanup wafting across the intersection to Huntington Beach's Edison High School, Superintendent Clint Harwick said after Tuesday's board meeting that he'll pursue on-campus air monitoring and consider shutting down summer activities at the school.

The response comes five days after outrage at a meeting attended by 300 neighbors resulted in work at the Ascon landfill being halted indefinitely by the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, which is overseeing the cleanup. The agency said work at the former oil-field waste dump would not continue until new steps were taken to control dust and fumes leaving the site.

But even with work stopped, neighbors have complained of ongoing chemical odors.

And while the toxic substances agency has reported just three minor instances of excessive dust or toxins from 648 tests this year, parents speaking at Tuesday's Huntington Beach Union High School board meeting repeatedly cited student headaches, breathing issues, nausea and other illnesses that coincided with the start of the cleanup in Februrary.

Parents presented a list of requests to the school board, including air purifiers for every classroom, on-campus air monitoring and no summer school or summer athletics at the school.

"We'll definitely look into that," Harwick said afterward of shutting down summer activities. Summer school is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

"We have a short period of time to look at information to make that decision," he said

District spokeswoman Cheryl McKenzie said Wednesday that Harwick had been in meetings that day to discuss bringing independent contractors on campus to monitor the air and help determine if there's cause to shut down summer activities.

Historical health worries

The landfill, located a half mile from the ocean at the intersection of Magnolia Street and Hamilton Avenue, was privately operated from 1938 to 1984. A 2012 county grand jury report noted that toxic substances in the dump included chromic acid, sulfuric acid, aluminum slag, fuel oils and styrene.

Signs on the fence surrounding the 38-acre site warn of lead, arsenic and nickel.

Several preliminary cleanups -- and attempted cleanups -- have taken place over the years as officials have tried to minimize the long-term environmental and health hazards at the site. The final cleanup plan, which will remove part of the toxic waste and seal the remainder in the center of the site, was approved in 2015 and is scheduled for completion next year.

Health concerns have cropped up in the community periodically, but several studies have failed to connect the toxic site with illnesses in the area.

The 2012 grand jury discussed the issue with county public health officers.

"They basically summarized the results of their investigations as statistically negative with regard to a link between the dump and reported neighborhood illnesses," the grand jury report said. It then noted, "Clearly, statistical reports have not quieted the fears of some residents who continue to believe there is a link between health issues and the dump site."

Tuesday's school board testimony underlined that sentiment. Mariya Sheldon's discussion of the health of her daughter, an Edison student, over the past five months was one of many anecdotal examples.

"She has come home numerous times due to unbearable migraines, unexplained and unresolved sinus issues, dizziness, stomach aches and nausea," Sheldon said. "Our new culprit is unexplained joint pain, swelling and bruising. Numerous blood tests have found no cause to these symptoms. I believe I have an explanation: the unsafe and careless remediation efforts at Ascon."

Meanwhile, some neighbors have pointed to specific incidents of cancer in the area and expressed worries that the landfill is responsible.

USC medical professor Thomas Mack in 2011 examined the incidence of childhood stem-cell cancer in the area. Of the 85 instances in the county over a 20-year period, there were no instances in north Huntington Beach while eight occurred in the southern half of the city, where the landfill is located. But none of those eight were within a half mile of the dump and the numbers were within the margin of variation due to chance, he found.

In 2006, UC Irvine medical researchers Hoda Anton-Culver and Thomas Taylor examined statewide cancer data to compare the areas adjacent to the landfill to that of the general population.

"We did not find any excess risk of cancers, given the best estimates of the size, ages, gender and race/ethnic mix of the community, and time of observation," Taylor said via email Tuesday.

Failure to communicate

Two school board members on Tuesday said they'd been unaware of the parents' concerns and complained that the city of Huntington Beach had left the school district out of the loop about developments related to the landfill.

"I don't doubt the furor over us not knowing about this, but the city hasn't been helpful," said trustee Susan Henry.

But parents upset with the lack of communication by the district weren't buying that excuse, noting longstanding issues at the landfill and recent calls from concerned parents to Edison High School.

"We're upset that no steps were taken were taken to protect our students," said Ceeson Baker, who's son attends the school. "You have an obligation to protect our children."

Assistant Superintendent Owen Crosby said he spoke with the toxic substances agency Monday, and that the district would now be getting regular updates from both the agency and the city.

In an email, Huntington Beach Mayor Erik Peterson did not directly respond to school trustees' criticism but did say that all involved agencies needed to communicate better with the public.

Meanwhile, some neighbors and parents are wondering why citizen outrage has been necessary to win recent pledges of action by the toxic substances agency and school district.

"I don't know why the burden of this is falling on the community," parent Tara Barton told the school board Tuesday.


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