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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Nauseating Scene at SoCal Elementary School

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - Children are getting sick from a Huntington Beach trash dump that blows toxic dust, chemicals and vile odors into their school, the Ocean View School District claims in court.

The school district sued trash hauler Rainbow Transfer/Recycling and two of affiliates, Rainbow Disposal and Rainbow Environmental Services, in Superior Court. It accuses the trash company of gross negligence, liability for ultrahazardous activities, nuisance and trespass onto Oak View Preschool and Elementary School.

The schools serve 1,000 students in the poor, minority neighborhood of Oak View in Huntington Beach.

Pollution from the waste dump is so bad that families have moved their children out of the school and away from the neighborhood, the school district says in the complaint. It claims that the dump spews toxic dust, chromium and crystalline silica, aggravating and causing asthma and bronchitis, and possibly lung cancer.

Children and school staff face "choking dust" blown from piles of crushed concrete, "disgusting odors" from piles of decomposing "green" waste, and noise from machines and trucks, the complaint states.

The dust pollution is "so bad that a thin film of such dust regularly coats the lunch tables at the elementary school and, on a daily basis, must be scrubbed off the tables in the outdoor seating area where the students eat lunch," the district says in the lawsuit.

Stench from decomposing waste sometimes forces students and teacher indoors to eat lunch.

"When complaints are made to Rainbow regarding this odor, Rainbow sprays unidentified chemicals on the piles, which masks - but does not eliminate - the rotting green waste smell with a Pine-Sol-like odor that has been described by teachers as 'sickening,'" the school district adds.

To top it off, the dump attracts clocks of seagulls that drop chicken bones, food wrappers and other trash onto the school and leave feces on "virtually every square inch" of the elementary school roof. The smell of the feces wafts through air ducts into classrooms below.

In a scene reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," the school claims that when the bell rings, "birds scatter from the roof, flying over students, teachers, and staff, and dropping feces as they go."

"Children run to the shelter of the classrooms with their sweatshirts or other clothing held over their head to shield themselves from the droppings," the lawsuit continues. "The children are still hit frequently, and virtually every teacher and staff member at the school has been hit at least once. The birds also drop feces on cars and across the rest of the campus. This includes the playing fields, where students can pick up the feces on their shoes, and track it into classrooms - particularly on mornings when dew is present on the grass."

Rainbow tried to use falcons to scare the seagulls away, but provided just a "brief respite, and the seagulls return shortly after the falconer leaves," the school says. And now rats, raccoons and skunks have descended on the trash piles.

The school district claims that City of Huntington Beach is too cozy with the hauler, which has had an exclusive contract with the city since the late 1950s.

Recently the city granted Rainbow's application to expand its 17.59 acre site and rezone on 4.4 acres of land, despite public opposition, the complaint states.

The school says that it supported Rainbow's 2009 application for a permit to expand its operations to 4,000 tons of solid waste each day. The school said it offered its support because it believed Rainbow would expand the plant to enclose concrete and decomposing green waste piles.

But Rainbow exploited a loophole that requires it to expand only if it exceeds a daily average of 2,800 tons of waste, and has refused to enclose the waste by claiming it's below the limit, the school claims.

"However, Rainbow self-reports its own throughput, and there does not appear to be any public agency that actively monitors the amount of waste that is processed at the transfer station," the lawsuit states.

Oak View Elementary principal Laura Dale-Pash told the Orange County Register in November that conditions at the school "are nothing less than terrible." She dreaded what would happen if Rainbow expands the dump.

"I cannot imagine more industrial activity in our small area," she said.

Teacher Linda Saez wondered if things might be different if Oak View were affluent.

"I can't help but wonder how different the situation would be if Rainbow was located in any other Huntington Beach neighborhood," Saez said. "I can't help but wonder if the demographics of our almost exclusively Hispanic neighborhood have been relied upon heavily because (residents) won't complain or protest."

Per capita income in the Oak View neighborhood is $16,673 - 60 percent below the Huntington Beach per capita income of $41,481 as a whole, according to the lawsuit.

Ocean View High School student Leslie Gaspar told the Register the dump has affected her family's health.

"Everything going on is bad for us students," Gasper said. "My siblings have asthma. Them breathing this (dust) affects their lungs and then they'll not attend school because they're sick. Because I have a large family and my dad doesn't get much income, we can't pay for all these medicines."

The school district seeks an injunction and damages.

It is represented by Edmond Connor, with Connor, Fletcher & Hedenkamp, of Irvine.

Rainbow did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

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