Chapman University continues cleanup of polluted property after lawsuit with former owners


By Daniel Langhorne

A California federal judge recently dismissed a suit brought by Chapman University against the former owners of a university-owned property, claiming nearly 60 years of copper wire manufacturing heavily polluted the soil beneath the site. 

Chapman declined to comment on the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court of California in 2012, citing a non-disclosure agreement with the property’s former owners. Court records show the case was dismissed in May, at the request of all involved parties.

A geologist with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board said in a September 2014 email: “It was our understanding that negotiations were progressing among Chapman [and the property’s former owners] for settlement of the costs [estimated at approximately $1.5 million for implementing the approved work plans] associated with the approved scope of work at the site.”

Remediation for rackets
Chapman University plans to clean up the site at 200 N. Cypress and build a tennis complex. “We look forward to starting the work on the new tennis courts, as that will open the way for our new Center for Science and Technology to break ground on the site partially occupied by the old tennis courts,” said Mary Platt, a university spokesperson.

Chapman’s existing tennis courts at Walnut Avenue and Center Street will give way to a three-story science and technology building encompassing about 150,000 square feet.

An environmental consulting firm, Block Environmental, discovered elevated concentrations of carcinogenic toxins above state-permitted levels for a residential development at the former copper wire plant during a 2011 study, according to a report published by the university.  

The results of the study thwarted Chapman’s plans to build Filmmakers’ Village, a dormitory building for students attending Dodge College of Film and Media Arts.

In February 2014, Chapman removed contaminated soil from six locations on the property, following protocol approved by Orange County Health Agency (OCHA)and the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. The university is still cleaning up the site, officials confirmed.

Know nothing
Still, some neighbors continue to harbor concerns.  Mario Alvarado, 67, has lived 200 feet away from the polluted property his entire life, and said he is concerned about its potential impacts on his health. Alvarado already gets compensation from the federal government because he was exposed to Agent Orange during his service in the U.S. Army.

“I’d rather be healthy than get the compensation,” he said.

It’s unknown if any of Alvarado’s health conditions, which he says include allergies and clogged arteries, stem from the pollution.

Residents voiced concerns at a 2014 meeting that the university had failed to place warning signs on the green fence that surrounds the property, which could have notified residents about the hazardous material. 

Anthony Martinez, a program manager with OCHA’s site mitigation group, said Chapman isn’t required to post warning signs at the property because it poses no threat to the average person walking down the street. He noted that any vapor coming off the site doesn’t pose a real danger because the pollution is most severe many feet underground.

“As far as I know, there is no requirement [with] the contamination at this site for [Chapman] to do that,” Martinez said.

However, according to the California Health and Safety Code, businesses are prohibited from knowingly and intentionally exposing someone to a chemical known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving a clear and reasonable warning. 

Comes with the territory
University officials emphasize that the pollution was caused by the activities of the property’s former owners. 

The California Wire and Cable Company operated a copper wire manufacturing facility on the site from 1922 to 1930. In May 1930, the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company acquired California Wire.

In 1934, Anaconda started to build long-range radio antennas for the U.S. Navy at the property, according to court documents. In the 1950s, Anaconda started to produce aluminum wire on Cypress Street.

In 1977, Anaconda merged with the Atlantic Richfield Company, and three years later Atlantic Richfield and Ericsson, a Swedish telecommunications company, created a joint ownership of Anaconda’s former business holdings.

In 1982, the copper wire manufacturing business on the Cypress Street site closed.

Real estate investors Stephen D. Massman and Rita J. Pynoos acquired the property in 1990. Before Chapman purchased the property in 1998, it conducted a preliminary investigation that showed no pollution of the soil or groundwater, according to water quality control board documents.

Chapman still plans to bring dormitories to Palm Avenue and Cypress Street by building a 400-bed residence hall in the former Villa Park Orchards Packinghouse’s parking lot. University officials have said they will first verify that pollution from the Anaconda property has not migrated underground before it moves forward on that project.