The Ramparts Research and Investment Co. intended earlier this year to construct condominiums in Orange County, Calif., on an abandoned dump site that gave off such foul fumes that people were known to pass out. Construction has been stopped by state officials.
Not far away, in Richmond County, local officials are attempting to figure out what to do with the equivalent of 40,000 truckloads of hazardous waste in the Stringfellow Quarry in the path of encroaching civilization. According to one official, the county government allowed developers to build on a flood plain below the waste site because "if people are foolish enough to buy those lots, that is their problem."
And in the San Francisco Bay area, the Federal Housing Administration will not allow homeowners to sell 29 houses they bought next to an abandoned chemical dump after developers allegedly used a ruse to get the site approved.
These three examples are just a part of a nagging problem that California, like the rest of the nation, is facing: The hazardous wastes dumped in past decades are rising to haunt the present and future.
These problems have come to the fore after publicity generated by the Love Canal disaster near Niagara Falls, N.Y. Today, the federal government anticipates that a $1.65 billion "superfund" must be built up over a four-year period to investigate and clean up what the Environmental Protection Agency estimates are 1,000 to 1,200 sites across the nation that may pose significant health or environmental problems.
California's industrialization began much later than it did in eastern cities. Therefore, according to Peter Weiner, special assistant to the governor for toxic substances control, the problem is not as acute here. But as land-starved developers continue to look for increasingly scarce areas on which to put homes here, the problems are growing.
Earlier this year, Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. asked the legislature to pass 25 bills or budget items that would work toward solving some of those hazardous waste problems. Most of the bills are still moving through the legislature.
The measure that has raised the biggest fuss so far is one pushed by Marin County Assemblyman William J. Filante. The Republican lawmaker's bill would require the state to find and identify hazardous waste dump sites and to establish a 2,000-foot no man's land around them where no permanent human habitations could be constructed.
The bill has been opposed by somewhat embarrassed lobbyists for the California Association of Realtors and the construction industry because, they contend, the burden of proving that a site and the surrounding land are safe falls on the developer or property owner, rather than on the state.
They contend that the developers might incur such high costs in proving that their lands are safe that building could be prohibitively expensive, Dugald Gillies, a real estate industry lobbyist, said.
"We are as conacerned as anyone with the fact that a person should not be exposed to hazardous substances," Gillies said. "But we think that if someone attempts to preclude you from using your land they ought to tell you about it and they ought to have to prove it to somebody."
Similarly, California officials are having a difficult time finding out where all of California's hazardous sites are. Many sites were created during World War II when waste was deposited in numerous dumps around the state.
Dr. Harvey F. Collins, chief of the state health department's Hazardous Materials Section, gave the example of a site in Oakland, where city officials built a park over an old battery reclamation site.
Not until much later did officials discover hazardous levels of lead in the soil where children played. About one year ago, the state had to assist the city in peeling off the top layer of ground to remove the lead from the soil.
But in other areas, officials claimed, unscrupulous developers have merely evaded the law. In Contra Costa County in the bay area, according to Antioch Mayor Vern Roberts, a developer was unable to get county approval to build near a site where chemicals had been dumped before World War II.
So the developer petitioned the unsuspecting city of Antioch for annexation, and built homes with city approval. The chemical dump problem became known only after 29 homes had been built and sold.
Today, Roberts said, the homeowners are unable to resell their homes.
"The realtors made the money and the homeowners have been stuck with the problem," Roberts said.
Perhaps the worst problem in the state, however, is the Stringfellow site, where 32 million gallons of toxic substances were dumped in the 1960s and early 1970s. The state health department will soon begin taking blood samples from children near the site. The study, expected to take several years, will examine about 2,500 persons at a cost of more than $250,000.
Officials are trying to close the Stringfellow dump. But, according to James L. Anderson, a state health official, it could cost $13 million to close the site and there is nowhere to take the hazardous materials that must be removed from the Stringfellow Quarry.