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Small Town Worries About Pollution

November 3, 2000

WILLITS, Calif. (AP) _ When Victoria Titus moved here, she thought her children would have a safe place to grow up. Now, she says her family suffers from ailments such as kidney failure and seizures.

Titus and others in this northern California town billed as ``The Gateway to the Redwoods″ believe a hydraulics plant that polluted the area for more than 40 years before going bankrupt in 1995 is to blame for their health problems.

But the money residents say they need for medical tests to determine whether they were exposed to toxins that could be making them sick remains out of reach because of a legal battle between Remco Hydraulics’ owners and its insurers.

So the residents wait, and worry.

``I think they should test us,″ Titus said, echoing the feelings of many of the 200 residents who claim they suffer from pollution-related ailments.

A court settlement last year between the city and Whitman Corp. _ Remco’s parent company _ requires at least $2 million be put into a fund for medical tests for residents. According to the agreement, though, only insurance money can be used for the tests.

If the court decides in Whitman’s favor, insurance money left over after Whitman is reimbursed for its expenses _ including a court-mandated cleanup of the site _ will pay for the tests. The fund doesn’t provide for any medical treatment.

``I cannot believe that any of that funding can be dependent on the making good of insurance policies,″ Jane Gurko, a retired professor, told federal court Judge Susan Illston at a hearing this week to allow residents to air their concerns. ``I hope ... it can be turned around so there’s money for people who’ve actually been affected.″

Few deny that Remco, which made hydraulics equipment for the Department of Defense, polluted the ground with cancer-causing chromium 6 and other chemicals at its 3.5-acre site and elsewhere around town. But residents and the company differ on the extent and effect of the pollution.

``I think it’s important that studies to date have shown that the site today poses no public health risks,″ said attorney Barbara Guibord, who represents Whitman.

Remco began chrome plating operations in 1963, prompting numerous complaints about strange smells and chemicals and a warning by county health officials that it appeared to be violating environmental regulations.

But Remco kept dumping waste. Runoff poured into a nearby creek. Rooftop ventilation fans blew fumes.

As the defense industry declined, Remco was eventually sold and later declared bankruptcy. After the company closed in 1995, the city of Willits filed suit, demanding that the former owners clean up the site.

By then, Remco’s founder had died, and a federal judge ruled that Chicago-based Whitman Corp. should be held accountable.

About 100 residents have filed suit, blaming contamination from the hydraulic plant for illnesses, said Bill Simpich, one of their attorneys.

Santa Cruz resident Leslie Hernandez believes the pollution was responsible for her 5-year-old son’s death in 1997. The boy had played in the contaminated creek during a visit to Willits. The coroner’s report said the boy, who had mild hemophilia, died from stomach bleeding.

Illston dismissed Hernandez’s suit but the law firm associated with Erin Brockovich, the paralegal and environmental watchdog made famous by the hit Julia Roberts movie, has agreed to handle Hernandez’s appeal.

In 1990, the firm won a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. on behalf of residents in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley, whose water was allegedly polluted with chromium 6.

Not all agree that Remco has harmed Willits, a community of 5,000.

``I think the environmental problem has been blown out of proportion,″ said Marvin Hansard, who has lived across the street from the site for 28 years. ``They’ve done test drills throughout this immediate area but never found anything.″

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