Water Pollution Suit Goes to Trial

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Eight years in the making, the Superior Court trial began this week in a lawsuit filed by the Orange County Water District against Northrop Grumman and several other companies accused of polluting groundwater in Fullerton and Anaheim.

The contamination, according to the suit, began in the 1950s during Orange County’s massive building boom and lasted for 30 years.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004, accuses Northrop and at least eight other firms of allowing toxic cleaning solvents and other contaminants to drain into the soil, potentially harming the groundwater underneath much of North Orange County.

Other companies named in the suit include Aerojet-General, AC Products Inc., EDO Corp., Mark IV Industries, Fullerton Business Park, MAG Aerospace Industries, Fullerton Manufacturing Co. and American Electronics.

Fender Musical Instruments, the iconic guitar maker, is also among the companies mentioned in the suit in connection with hazardous waste stored at its Fullerton site.

The Water District uses the aquifer to supply at least half of the drinking water for 21 cities, according to the lawsuit, but it emphasized there is no current danger to drinking water supplies.

“Your drinking water is safe and meets or exceeds all stringent state and federal drinking water standards,” reads a statement on the Water District’s website.

A cleanup plan that the district estimates will cost at least $47 million is scheduled to begin this summer. The suit seeks an unspecified amount for the clean up or to mitigate the pollution and for punitive damages, plus attorney fees and costs.

The companies were located along a roughly five-mile area that parallels Orangethorpe Boulevard just north of the Fullerton-Anaheim border. The zone generally is bordered by Euclid Street on the west and State College Boulevard and the Placentia city boundary on the east.

The Water District “is going to trial so that the corporate polluters responsible for the contamination pay for the clean up, not the water ratepayers,” according to a statement released by Eleanor Torres, director of public affairs.

Northrop Grumman would not comment on specifics of the lawsuit but stated that it “has been engaged in remedial work at the sites at issue in the case since well prior to the 2004 filing of the lawsuit.”

The 79-year-old Orange County Water District was created by the Legislature in 1933 to manage the groundwater basin under northern and central Orange County.

According to the Water District statement, the cleanup plan is “a cost-effective project to capture and treat contamination in the groundwater basin to prevent it from spreading further.”

Some of the companies have had various owners over the years, but generally since at least 1951, the firms let chemicals known as volatile organic compounds leach into the soil and threaten the underlying groundwater, according to the lawsuit.

Many of the pollutants named in the suit, including perchloroethylene [PCE] and trichloroethylene [TCE], are solvents used to degrease industrial equipment. Others were hazardous wastes stored in drums on the sites. Businesses are required by the state to phase out the use of PCE’s by 2020 because they pose an unacceptably high cancer risk.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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