Negotiations between the Justice Department and the more than 200 companies responsible for dumping hazardous wastes at the Stringfellow Acid Pits near Riverside, Calif., have broken down, and the department expects to sue some of those companies late next week for millions of dollars to pay for cleaning up the landfill.
Carol E. Dinkins, the assistant attorney general who heads the Lands and Natural Resources Division, said the government may ask for as much as $40 million from the companies to clean up the site.
The figure is much higher than the $6.1 million the Environmental Protection Agency planned to award the state last summer to pay for a cleanup. The 22-acre site is at the center of allegations, now under investigation by the FBI and several congressional subcommittees, that departed EPA administrator Anne M. Burford made a last-minute decision to withhold the cleanup money for political reasons.
Several EPA sources have said she stopped the funding because she believed that then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. might try to claim credit for the cleanup during his race last year for the Senate. Pete Wilson, the Republican mayor of San Diego, won the election.
The Justice Department, which has been negotiating on the case since September, has identified 224 companies that dumped wastes at Stringfellow between 1955 and 1972. So far, 199 of the companies have been located, but Dinkins said yesterday that there has been no determination on which companies will be included in the lawsuit.
"That is still under consideration," she said. "We will include enough to protect the interests of the government." Dinkins said her division had set late March or early April as a deadline after which a lawsuit would be filed. But she said yesterday that the department may continue to negotiate after the lawsuit is filed.
Under federal law, Justice could have sued the companies for an amount triple the cost of the cleanup. But it appears in the Stringfellow case that the EPA did not file the administrative notice that is required for triple damages. "That is done by the agency," Dinkins said. "It's not directly in our chain of command."
The department is likely to face a number of problems in the mammoth case, including disputes about amounts and relative dangers of the substances dumped at Stringfellow.