Months after Orange County health officials were rebuked for failing to investigate complaints from a Huntington Beach elementary school about a neighboring trash dump, a school board member is openly questioning why the county is continuing to fight an order to launch an investigation.
The issue centers on the Rainbow Environmental Services trash facility, which is owned by Phoenix-based Republic Services and lies across the street from Oak View Elementary, one of the city's most impoverished schools.
The children at Oak View have been subjected to bird droppings, nauseating odors, dust and chicken bones dropped by birds due to the open-air dump, according to school district officials who want to see an enclosure built around the waste facility with odor and dust filtering systems.
“Why is the County of Orange, specifically the [county] Health Care Agency…continuing to allow Rainbow/Republic disposal company to abuse almost 1,000 children, teachers and staff at the Oak View Elementary School?” John Briscoe, an Ocean View School District board member, asked county supervisors during a recent public meeting.
Briscoe and a teacher at the school, Margaret Friedmann, urged supervisors to stop the County Counsel's office from appealing a hearing officer's order to investigate the school district’s concerns.
“It is vitally important that the Health Care Agency [investigate] our complaints” and not appeal the order, said, Friedmann, who added that she experiences “the smell of rotten trash more days than not.”
Craig Alexander, the administrative hearing officer appointed by the county, ruled in February that the health agency violated its own procedures when it opted not to investigate complaints from the school district last summer that could have affected the facility’s operating permit.
Alexander ordered county officials to investigate the district’s claims and, if they could be substantiated, decide whether the facility should face new requirements in order to keep its permit.
But Denise Fennessy, the Health Care Agency’s director of environmental health, said Alexander made his decision "in error" and plan to go ahead with an appeal of the ruling by next Wednesday’s deadline.
Meanwhile, she said, county staff are inspecting the facility once a week to spot any outstanding problems.
“We’re working with the school district and the city and [South Coast Air Quality Management District], responding to complaints," Fennessy said. "We’ve stepped our surveillance and [are] trying to find a way to mitigate some of these issues.”
The school is currently on summer break, but as recently as mid-June school officials were still loudly complaining about the situation to the county, echoing their comments from a hearing early in the year.
“We’ve had times where we couldn't even be outside. We had to go inside the classroom because students were covering their mouths and gagging. Students throwing up,” a teacher at the school, April Henderson, testified during the hearing.
Another teacher said there was so much bird excrement on the roof that it leaked into the area around classrooms.
“I remember the time that the hallways smelled like bird poop. Literally, bird urine was seeping through our classrooms and inside the hallways,” Kim Davis testified.
Photos provided by the district show dozens of birds circling over the school, bones littering the top of a building and seagull feces near what officials say are ventilation ducts at the school:
Meanwhile, Rainbow officials say they’re working on several fronts to address the bird, odor and dust issues.
During the school year, a falcon handler wards away birds from feasting on the trash, and Rainbow plans to install dust screens and odor-eating misters by sometime in August, the company said in a statement.
Rainbow also says they’re working to completely enclose the facility, with a target of finishing the job by the end of 2017, depending on approvals by regulatory agencies.
“Like any good neighbor, we have proactively implemented a number of initiatives to control any remnant odor and further reduce any operational impacts within the surrounding area,” spokeswoman Sue Gordon said in a statement.
(Click here to read Rainbow’s statement.)
District officials made a formal complaint to the Health Care Agency in June 2014, while the agency was deciding whether to re-issue the dump’s operating permit. But officials there failed to follow up on the letter and initiate an investigation, according to the administrative hearing ruling.
The county violated its own procedures and “abused its discretion in not conducting a complete investigation regarding Rainbow's operations, specifically regarding the complaints of the [Ocean View School District’s] witnesses of noise, vector and dust at the Oak View Elementary School site,” Alexander wrote in his February decision.
During the hearing, which was triggered under state law by a complaint from the school district, a county official in charge of overseeing Rainbow’s permit testified that the county usually responds within 24 hours to complaint letters like the one the district filed.
But the official, Kathryn Cross, said she didn’t respond to the district’s concern letter, and didn’t know of anyone else who did.
Based in part on that testimony, Alexander found that the county didn’t contact “any of the [school district] personnel or its counsel regarding the [school district’s] concerns” outlined in the letter last June.
In addition to ordering the county to investigate the district’s claims and decide whether new requirements should be placed on the dump, Alexander stipulated that county must also write a final report about its investigation.
(Click here to read the decision.)
Separately from the order, the region’s air pollution regulators, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, issued a violation notice against Rainbow in November that mandates full enclosure of the facility.
At the county level, Oak View families and the trash facility are represented by county Supervisor Michelle Steel.
After the school officials spoke on June 9, Steel told them she understood their positions, but didn’t say where she stood regarding the appeal. Her opinion carries weight among her colleagues, who usually defer to specific supervisor when an issue falls within their district.
Steel and her staff didn’t return messages from Voice of OC this week seeking comment, nor did any of the other county supervisors.
Rainbow and its parent company have given more than $16,000 to county supervisors’ political campaigns. That includes $7,100 to Chairman Todd Spitzer, $4,400 to Shawn Nelson and $2,150 to Steel.
(Click here for a list of the campaign contributions.)