Bitter Harvest

Four Huntington Beach kids have died of a rare disease. Officials say theres no pattern. The parents say the answer could be underground

In 1950, the dumpsite switched owners and became home to far more varied hazardous chemicals. Many are listed as cancer causing under California's Proposition 65 public-notification law. Next to the lagoons, an open pit containing an equally toxic brew of styrene remained uncovered until 1988, when neighbors complained about the fumes. Officials solved that problem with a tarp.

Huntington Beach officials have been trying to clean up the dumpsite since 1992. That year, the City Council okayed a developer's plan to remove thousands of gallons of toxic waste from the site—and pay for it by building dozens of new homes there. They were stopped by outraged nearby residents who showed up in legions to deliver a message: they'd rather live next door to a hazardous-waste dumpsite than more people.

Twelve years later, state officials say they are finally going to begin cleaning up the dump this month. It's taken so long because, although Ascon landfill has been designated a California Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, which qualifies it for state funds, it hasn't been very high on that list.

Another reason for the delay is that officials still aren't sure how safe it will be to remove the waste. They've considered burying it where it is; that would prevent developers from building any homes there. Removing the waste would allow new homes but might endanger nearby residents and is scheduled to take at least three years. Officials say about 250,000 cubic yards need to go—enough crud to fill 12,500 toxic-waste-disposal trucks at 4,000 gallons apiece. A single convoy to some remote desert dumpsite would stretch more than 70 miles, blocking the freeway, for example, from Surf City to Ventura County.

If a hazardous-waste site across the street from a kids' park isn't bad enough, there's this: Edison Community Park is built atop a landfill and still generates so much methane gas that it must be constantly monitored.

County officials acknowledge the methane is a problem. But they say they're carrying out "additional testing" and developing a plan with the Huntington Beach Fire Department.

The additional tests are necessary because the fire department's original consultant on the site, GeoSciences Analytical Inc. (GSA), reported that Edison Community Park was methane-free. In October 2002, county prosecutors charged GSA falsified methane readings at the park. GSA admitted responsibility, and Dr. Fleet Rust, the company's owner, was sentenced to probation and fined $1,000, although he's still disputing a $76,000 restitution order.

"The consultant admitted he didn't actually measure the methane, and he got his hands caught in the cookie jar," said Duncan Lee, an associate civil engineer with the Huntington Beach Public Works Department. "The city is still trying to get money from them because of all the extra work we had to do."

Lee insists Edison Park poses no danger to anyone. "After the GSA incident, we had to do everything over again. We hired another consultant, who came to the same conclusion—that there was no danger. Edison Park is a great park, and there is no indication it has ever been unsafe, and the fire department would be the first to shut it down if it was not safe."

In May 2001, a year before Trent was diagnosed with brain cancer, the parents of the first three children sent a letter to Dr. Hoda Anton-Culver, director of UC Irvine Medical Center's cancer-surveillance program for Orange County. They asked her to investigate any possible link between their kids' illness and the soil around Edison Community Park.

Anton-Culver refused to be interviewed for this story. But in a June 2001 response to the parents, she said there was no evidence the incidences of brain tumors in Huntington Beach were statistically significant. "We see no indication in the accompanying materials that children in Huntington Beach are at an elevated risk for brain stem glioma relative to Orange County as a whole, or that children in Orange County are at an elevated risk for that disease relative to California as a whole," she wrote.

Less than a year after that letter, of course, Trent Olson was diagnosed with brain stem glioma, and Cheri-Jan Olson became the fourth member of what she calls "the club nobody wants to belong to."

According to the National Cancer Institute, brain stem glioma usually affects white people—mostly small children and middle-aged adults. And because it attaches itself to the brain stem—a mass of vital tissue that controls the body's most important functions—the glioma is almost impossible to remove.

The disease follows a familiar trajectory: the victim, typically a young kid, begins a devolutionary cycle—weak, tired, pale, moody, followed by hospitalization, hopeless chemotherapy. Beyond that, science doesn't have much to say on the subject, except that no one survives brain stem glioma. "The biggest problem I faced as a parent was a lack of information," said Junghans.

David Junghans was the first of the Huntington Beach kids diagnosed. He seemed healthy until April 1999, when his parents noticed he looked haggard.

"Something was always wrong when he came back from school," said Junghans. "He had headaches and walked crooked and had to lower his head to the spoon when he ate his cereal. We called the doctor."

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