Ana Hayes moved into her home at the Starlight Mobile Home Park in El Cajon in 1969. It’s where she raised her three children, and it’s where she and her husband still live.
Her home sits above a toxic groundwater plume that residents first learned about in October 2016, though state officials and the company responsible for the contamination knew about it in the late 1980s.
Eight homes, including Hayes’, require ventilation improvements to reduce to a safe level the amount of a cancer-causing gas that has been seeping into the dwellings. The vapors are coming up from the groundwater, which is contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE.
So far, 151 homes in the Starlight, Greenfield and Villa Cajon mobile home parks have been tested, and 63 more are expected to be tested this year.
Workers first tested Hayes’ mobile home last February and again in March. The results showed the TCE levels inside the home were more than three times higher than what the state deems safe.
The next test was in August. It showed the TCE was just below safe levels inside the home, but the crawl space beneath the house had levels that were more than double the state limit.
“I hope that this time they do something,” said the 82-year-old Hayes. “They’ve been taking tests a long, long time.”
Electronics manufacturer Ametek owned the plant that polluted the groundwater. The company is working to clean up the site and is paying for the air quality tests.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure people are safe in their homes and feel safe in their homes,” said Dr. Mary McDaniel, an Ametek consultant. “So it’s important to see whether levels of vapors are coming into people’s homes that could be harmful.”
McDaniel said that of the 457 mobile homes in the three parks, a third sit atop the plume. Any resident, however, can request the free air testing.
Chemical pit caused contamination
Some residents, like the Hayes family, have lived for decades above the 1.3-mile plume of TCE, a chemical used primarily as a degreasing agent. It is believed to cause kidney and liver cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. TCE can also cause harm to fetuses after short- and long-term exposure.
The source of the contamination was an aerospace manufacturing plant on Greenfield Drive near North Mollison Avenue that Ametek bought in 1968. For years, thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals were dumped into a redwood plank-lined pit that sat atop a concrete slab on the property.
In 1987, Ametek removed the pit and work began to measure the amount of contamination at the site. The company removed around 10,000 pounds of waste from the immediate area. State records show the concentration of TCE in the groundwater below the Ametek facility was 8,000 times the state limit in 2007, according to a violation the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board issued to Ametek.
inewsource first reported on the toxic plume in October 2016 after the state Department of Toxic Substances Control issued a warning to the mobile home park residents that soil testing showed high levels of TCE nearby. Air quality tests of the mobile homes began four months later.
The highest levels of TCE were recorded in a home owned by Alex and Vicki Masters at the Greenfield Mobile Home Estates. They lived there with their two young children. In March, an air purifier was put inside the home, and two more were added in August.
Ametek offered to move the family, and they were relocated in September, McDaniel said. Their mobile home remains empty. Attempts to reach the couple for this story were unsuccessful.
Lawsuits filed against Ametek
Arla Cox moved to a home in the Villa Cajon Mobile Home Estates in 1986. She had previously lived next door for 10 years.
In 2001, Cox died at 63 of kidney cancer, and her three sons filed a federal wrongful death suit against Ametek. The sons also filed a federal lawsuit against the company for the contamination of the three mobile home parks. It alleges that Ametek did not act on orders from regulatory agencies to clean up the contamination.
Solana Beach attorney John Fiske is representing the Cox family. He also has filed two other federal lawsuits against Ametek.
One is on behalf of current and former students and teachers at Magnolia Elementary School, which sits atop the plume and was temporarily closed in 2015 to avoid disrupting classes while air quality tests were being done. Ametek later installed vents to funnel out any TCE from the buildings, even though the tests showed levels of the gas were not harmful.
The other suit is on behalf of the owners of the three mobile home parks.
The lawsuits allege that Ametek “knowingly, willfully and intentionally failed” to stop the contamination from spreading and possibly affecting nearby homes and businesses. Fiske told inewsource one of the primary goals of the lawsuits is to provide medical monitoring for the people living and working on the plume who may have been exposed to TCE.
Last year, Ametek asked the court to hold the owners of the mobile home parks liable along with Ametek. The company said the owners knew about the contamination and never told the residents. The judge ruled in favor of Ametek, allowing the company to share any potential liability with the mobile home park owners.
Fiske called Ametek’s attempt to try to make the park owners liable “absurd.”
“Oftentimes in corporate America, rather than taking responsibility for their actions, a large multibillion-dollar corporation like Ametek will blame three things or three types of people rather than take responsibility,” he said. “So what they’ve done is they have tried to counterclaim against our clients, who are the victims of this pollution, for the pollution itself.”
Ametek declined inewsource’s request for an interview and provided a statement about the pending lawsuits.
“AMETEK continues to work closely with the regulatory agencies to address the concerns of the community,” the company said. “We remain proactive in our efforts and are confident that the full record will demonstrate AMETEK has acted in an ethical, responsible, and timely way to address the issues at the site.”
The company recently settled a San Diego Superior Court lawsuit filed on behalf of three family members who lived in the Greenfield park for an undisclosed amount of money. The terms of the settlement were sealed, but the family had asked for an unspecified amount in damages.
San Diego attorney Dan Gilleon, who represented the family, said his clients suffered “very serious medical issues that were plausibly caused by the chemicals.”
Testing and TCE cleanup cost millions
Figures provided by McDaniel, Ametek’s consultant, show the company has spent millions of dollars on the cleanup and monitoring of the TCE-contaminated groundwater and for air quality testing.
Among the costs are $500,000 a year for air quality testing at Magnolia Elementary School and at the former plant site, as well as for groundwater testing and treatment, McDaniel said.
To clean up the plume, she said, a “pump and treat” system was installed to take in the contaminated groundwater and remove the TCE. The system has removed 407 pounds of contaminants from the water since its installation in 2007.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control is monitoring the cleanup and the air quality tests. The agency declined inewsource’s request for an interview but provided this statement:
“In the past year, the environmental investigation has had a more significant focus on the soil vapor and indoor air contamination. In June 2016, DTSC held a community meeting and open house; at which time the facility offered to sample individual residences at the adjacent mobile home parks. This offer continues to be open to adjacent mobile home residents and has resulted in continued environmental evaluation of the individual residences at the nearby mobile home parks along with the elementary school adjacent to the facility.”
Ametek continues to offer residents free air quality testing for their mobile homes. Residents can call (818) 717-6568 for information.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story included four errors, which were corrected on Feb. 28, 2018. Of the 457 homes in the three mobile home parks, a third sit atop the plume. Magnolia Elementary School was closed to avoid classroom disruption during testing. A federal judge ruled in favor of letting Ametek share liability with the mobile home park owners. The story also incorrectly said the state Department of Toxic Substances Control would hold a community meeting in the spring. No meeting is planned.
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