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Stringfellow Acid Pits

by Brian Craig Book Reviews

Stringfellow Acid Pits Book CoverBrian Craig’s Stringfellow Acid Pits: The Toxic and Legal Legacy, explores how California government officials coaxed Jimmy Stringfellow into allowing them to build a hazardous waste disposal site on his property. Based on superficial geological studies, state officials concluded that Stringfellow’s quarry was the perfect place to build a disposal site since it contained impermeable rock that would prevent toxic waste dumped there from seeping out. This conclusion turned out to be flawed. Cracks and fractures soon developed in the underlying bedrock and chemicals began to leak into the groundwater of nearby towns. Penny Newman, who lived in one of those towns, led community members in a fight to compel the state to clean up the site.

While Craig compares Newman to the famed Erin Brockovich, he focuses more on the legal and political wrangling that ensued for over 30 years due to the Stringfellow Acid Pits. Craig traces the progression of the lawsuits and the associated legislation that was promulgated in a methodical manner. A lawyer, Craig deftly explains the impact of each court decision and statutory enactment. He credits the Stringfellow Acid Pits with spurring the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which the EPA relied on to clean up the toxic site. He explains that litigation between manufacturers who dumped waste at the Stringfellow Acid Pits and their insurers led to a 1995 monumental California Supreme Court decision holding that the “continuous trigger” theory applies to liability coverage for injuries caused by toxic contamination where damages are continuous or progressive.

All the while, Craig remains a true champion of Stringfellow, feeling he was unfairly blamed for the debacle. Stringfellow was named as the lead defendant in the first lawsuit filed by the U.S. to recover clean-up costs. However, Craig reminds readers that Stringfellow “twice refused offers from [s]tate officials to build the site” and “acquiesced only when government officials assured him the site would be safe.” Although California was ultimately found responsible for the “lion’s share of liability,” Craig bemoans the fact that California never issued Stringfellow an apology.

As the longest civil trial in California history, there are many lessons to be learned. Craig takes the reader on a three-decade journey and highlights the advances made in areas of environmental and insurance law as well as civil and appellate procedure. Technical at points, Craig’s book is a valuable read not only for those well versed in the law, but for the general reader. The author’s account of the saga illuminates how the wheels of justice often turn slowly and that only through persistence and determination can change be effectuated. The book also serves as a reminder that society must guard against environmental damage or be bound to pay the price in the future.

Sheri Dennis is a member of The Florida Bar.