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

Doctors at Hoag Memorial Hospital ran David through an MRI scan and told Junghans to take her son to the Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). There, a doctor showed Junghans David's MRI scan and pointed to the tumor. Junghans asked for a prognosis.

"He said, 'It's zero,'" Junghans recalled. "Ninety-five percent of patients die in the first year, and the other 5 percent die later. No one lives through this tumor." The doctor said an operation might prolong David's life by nine months. "He lived another 18 months," she said.

"You have no idea how insidious this tumor is," said John Ott, stepfather of nine-year-old Nikki Ott, the third Huntington Beach child diagnosed with brain stem glioma. "They end up in a coma; they lose all functions one at a time. You can see it happening little by little. You don't know what's next."

In Nikki's case, the Otts "started noticing a droopy face, a droopy mouth and eyes, and it steadily got worse. After the radiation, Nikki improved," Ott said. But it soon became obvious the tumor was growing again. "She had an increasingly unsteady gait and began vomiting. We did another MRI scan and found out the tumor was enhanced. She started to go downhill."

Nikki died on March 27, 2001.

"My daughter was very religious," Ott says. "She never complained. She knew she was going to a better place. She was the strongest person I ever met."

Olson never met Nikki Ott or Spencer Stockton or David Junghans before she joined the club. "There was only one connection we could find between all our children," she said. "Oil operations."

Given the decades of oil drilling that took place in Huntington Beach, there's hardly an acre of the town that wasn't exposed to some level of contamination from petroleum products.

"There were oil wells everywhere," said one city official who asked not to be identified. "And there are pipes all over this town that nobody knows about. Any time you put in a backhoe, you are liable to uproot some of this stuff. There are all kinds of soil contamination here.

"Chevron at one point owned 30 percent of the city," the official continued. "When Chevron was ready to get out of oil landholding and sell everything off, they figured the best way to maximize profits was to get a development agreement with the city."

In 1992, the City Council passed an ordinance making it easier for oil companies to sell their fields for residential development. Reading that ordinance, it's clear city officials knew they were dealing with highly contaminated soil; it's just as clear they put the financial health of wealthy oil companies ahead of the health of their constituents.

A copy of that ordinance shows that on July 22, 1991, Chevron Land and Development requested the city fire department raise allowable soil contamination by 10 times because the previous limit was "unnecessarily restrictive." The ordinance also states that GSA, the same firm that would later admit it falsified environmental data at Edison Community Park, "has been retained by the city of Huntington Beach to advise it in this matter and to assist in revision of the standard if such action is found prudent."

Ron Satterfield, a former Fountain Valley fire marshal, says Huntington Beach's 1992 ordinance allows dangerous soil contamination.

"I think it is a big concern," he said. "Huntington Beach was nothing more than a big oil field. Because of the background of the community itself, we should be going to the highest standard to make sure the public doesn't have to worry about the soil underneath their homes."

After doctors diagnosed Trent Olson with brain stem glioma in May 2002, he underwent a brutal regimen of chemotherapy injections. Within several months, he seemed to have recovered. Although his body was swollen from steroids, he attended preschool that fall. But on March 5, 2003, Trent said his foot hurt and his fingers felt fuzzy.

"I knew the tumor had returned," Olson said. "He was throwing food like he was retarded and acting out." Once again, the Olsons rushed Trent to the hospital. "He was hitting me the whole way there because he knew we were going to the hospital."

Doctors put Trent through another grueling, six-days-per-week regimen of chemotherapy injections. Doctors allowed Olson to stay overnight at the hospital for two weeks. "I packed my pajamas and lay in bed with him for two weeks," Olson said.

The chemotherapy required Trent to be anaesthetized. "I told him he was going to the field of flowers to see birds and animals," Olson said. "He would always relax."

But when it was clear Trent wouldn't recover, Olson treated him to a visit to a mini-park for sick children and their families, the Give Kids the World Village just outside Orlando. In two weeks, Trent saw Disneyworld, the Epcot Center and Universal Studios courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. She also brought him to the wishing well near Cinderella's Castle at Disneyland. "Trent said he wished he could grow up and drive a truck," Olson said. "He knew he was very ill. He wanted to be well."

Meanwhile, city officials are pushing forward with a massive project to build 500 condominiums, a hotel and several stores in downtown Huntington Beach. Last year, local residents found out that Geosciences Analytical Inc.—the same firm that had falsified data at Edison Community Park—had been hired by the city to seek a waiver that would allow them to proceed without extensive soil tests for the project. After the residents found out, the city withdrew that request and hired a new consultant.

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