El Cajon School Closes after Class-Action Suit Filed over Toxic Plume Beneath It

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Fifty-two years ago, an aerospace company in El Cajon, near San Diego, received permission from the county to store its toxic waste in an impervious sump, but no one apparently bothered to ask how the storage unit was constructed. Its predecessors on the property had already been stashing waste water underground for a couple decades.   

The property passed through a few hands until 1985, when Pennsylvania-based Ametek left and the sump was found to be constructed with a concrete base and redwood walls, which did not contain the 7,000 gallons of waste poured into it monthly.

“Trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, paint thinners, spent acid and alkaline solutions, chlorinated industrial solvents and other harmful chemicals and sludge” gushed into the groundwater beneath it and spread out in a massive plume that encompassed neighboring properties, including that occupied by the Magnolia Elementary School, according to a lawsuit filed against Ametek and the property’s current occupant, Senior Aerospace Ketema. The school was built in 1952.

Mitigation measures began when Ketema took over the property, and chemicals are no longer disposed in that fashion. But nearby residents are not happy. They have long said that monitoring is insufficient and inaccurate, that mitigation is slow and ineffective, and testing of residents is non-existent.

The lawsuit cites a 2008 assessment by the State Water Resources Control Board that, “After 20 years of investigative efforts, Ametek and S&K have not installed a sufficient monitoring well network to delineate the vertical and horizontal extent of the waste plume and have not taken any efforts to cleanup and abate the effects of their discharge.” 

The danger is not just from drinking contaminated water. The plaintiffs, who are seeking class-action status, allege, “Since at least 1985, and most likely prior to 1985, students and teachers at Magnolia Elementary School have been exposed to toxic vapor intrusion due to AMETEK’S dumping of chlorinated waste into the SUMP.” The suit was filed in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of the mother of a former student at Magnolia, the mother of a current student and a teacher at the school.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) recommended quarterly monitoring of indoor air and the soil at the school―in 2012, and mitigation efforts were ramped up. U-T San Diego reported that Ametek’s consultants at Environmental Resources Management (ERM) filed a report in April 2014 that said there was no significant risk to students, but a subsequent report from Ninyo and Moore found toxic chemicals in the air, probably from the soil, that have been linked to kidney damage and cancer.

Underground containment wells have been installed under the schools over the years to stop the spread of contamination, but actually cleaning up the water is problematic. State regulators, school officials and the property owner say that testing shows no significant toxic threat.

But the Cajon Valley Union School District Governing Board voted 5-0 last week to close Magnolia for the 2015-16 school year, and relocate its 600 students, while additional testing continues. 

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Toxic Waste Beneath School Brings on Lawsuit (by Karen Pearlman, U-T San Diego)

Giant Toxic Plume near San Diego (by Reni Anguelova, Courthouse News Service)

El Cajon School Site Cleanup Ratchets Up (by Joel Hoffmann, U-T San Diego)

Danielle Trujillo et al v. Ametek, Inc. and Senior Aerospace Ketema (San Diego County Superior Court)

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