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Landfill facing hundreds of claims

A sign points to the entrance of Chiquita Canyon Landfill in Castaic. Dan Watson/ The Signal
A sign points to the entrance of Chiquita Canyon Landfill in Castaic. Dan Watson/ The Signal

A San Diego law firm recently joined the frenzy of legal action against Chiquita Canyon Landfill, with L.A. County Superior Court records indicating more than 250 claims have been filed over concerns about operations at the landfill. 

For the past year, the facility has drawn more than 10,000 complaints over the smells and toxic concerns about the gases and leachate the Waste Connections facility has created. 

The complaint for damages filed April 15 by the Frantz Law Group on behalf of about two dozen residents claims negligence, strict liability for ultrahazardous activities and a continuing public nuisance, among other grounds. 

Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Sylmar is also the subject of a complaint by Frantz and other firms alleging air quality concerns against the Browning-Ferris Industries-run facility. The landfill, just west of Interstate 5 in the Newhall Pass, is currently the subject of an audit over its odor-mitigation efforts.  

While Chiquita officials are unsure of the root cause of what officials are calling an “elevated temperature event” at the landfill, a subsurface smoldering reaction that’s generating temperatures greater than 185 degrees, what is clear is the smelly impacts the event has had on the facility. 

A nauseating odor has spread from the facility to as far away as Stevenson Ranch and Valencia, and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control cited the facility earlier this year because it tried to discharge leachate with toxic levels of benzene at a facility that wasn’t treated to permit toxic waste. 

Since the benzene was found in the leachate, the landfill has been storing leachate in tanks and treating it on site through emergency permission with the DTSC. 

The leachate is a regular landfill occurrence, but the levels produced at Chiquita also represent a potential hazard for the local water agency, which sent the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board a letter last week asking the agency to test the leachate for any cancer-causing chemicals. 

Under the “Nature of Case” portion of the latest suit, the plaintiffs claim, “they were exposed to elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, noxious fumes and odors in their homes and communities for an extended period of time, causing them harm, as a direct and proximate result of defendants’ negligent and reckless operation of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill.” 

A spokesman for the landfill Thursday said the company had no comment on pending litigation.  

The following are also among the numerous lawsuits filed regarding the issues surrounding the Chiquita landfill: 

First lawsuit 

While the bulk of the 289 cases listed online against Chiquita Canyon Landfill were filed after March 1, the first effort concerning the latest round of problems at Chiquita was filed Aug. 25 by Oshea Orchid, an attorney who also sits on the Castaic Area Town Council. 

Los Angeles County, which issued the conditional use permit that the landfill operates under, is listed as a co-defendant in both of the lawsuits represented by Sethi Orchid Miner LLP. 

Orchid said Tuesday in a phone interview the lawsuit has evolved since its initial filing as the number of plaintiffs has grown exponentially. 

“We initially filed this case as a class action to make sure that we included the entire community that was being affected, not just those who initially raised concerns about the Chiquita Canyon Landfill,” Orchid said. 

Initially, there were about 200 people signed up, she said. Ahead of an anticipated refiling, she’s talked to hundreds more. 

“Since our initial filing last August, public awareness of the seriousness of the situation has increased dramatically,” she wrote in a follow-up text. “We have been contacted by over a thousand community members to join the case, so we are no longer seeking to certify the class and will instead be including all of our clients in the next filings. We anticipate the number of people impacted to continue to increase throughout the case as the toxic gases coming from the landfill are being reported further from the site this year than in years past.” 

Orchid initially filed her case in L.A. County Superior Court, but attorneys for Chiquita successfully argued to have it moved to federal jurisdiction. One of the reasons cited in the landfill’s reasoning is that the size of a potential settlement could exceed $5 million. 

Orchid is also filing for a writ that’s seeking an injunction to shut down the landfill, which is due back in court June 5 for a case-management hearing. 

Downtown L.A. 

The Downtown L.A. Law Group filed its first action against Chiquita Canyon Landfill on Jan. 8, a complaint for damages claiming public nuisance, private nuisance and negligence on behalf of four plaintiffs listed in the initial document. 

The DTLA Law Group’s complaint states the county approved the landfill for 30 more years of operation and a more than 140-acre expansion of its footprint on July 25, 2017. 

The approval was granted even though reports at the time indicated the challenges, according to the complaint.  

“The county claims that with implementation of mitigation measures, environmental impacts to the project will be reduced to less than significant levels, except for impacts to air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change,” the claim states. “However, it was and is clear that impacts to air quality and greenhouse gas emissions and climate change could not be mitigated.” 

The firm did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday for this story. 

L.A. County is not listed as a defendant in the firm’s initial complaint.  

The Hills & the Valley 

Beverly Hills-based Kiesel Law and Sherman Oaks-based Keosian Law have teamed up to bring forth actions that started in February. 

Mel Melkonian, a partner with Keosian Law, who will be one of the attorneys on the case, said in a phone interview Tuesday the two firms are working together “hand-in-hand” on this specific case in their representation of plaintiffs for their damages. 

Melkonian said the firms have signed up close to 800 clients since their first action was filed Feb. 2, and the firms are expecting to file more cases in the coming weeks. 

In addressing the community benefit fund that Chiquita Canyon Landfill has established, Melkonian also said he wouldn’t be opposed to his clients accepting any of the benefits from the funds secured for residents through L.A. County, but he would want them to make sure they’re not signing any rights away.  

Residents made an initial complaint about the fund, but Chiquita quickly issued a statement to say residents were not giving up any of their rights. 

“Because sometimes what they try to do is offer you something up front, something small, just to kind of placate people and hoping that they turn a blind eye to the bigger problem,” Melkonian said. “The issue here is not solvable by giving some benefits or relocating people for a couple of months. There is a serious issue here with contamination, and unless there is a long-term solution that is being offered, we’re going to do everything in our power to fight for our clients to make sure that they are made whole, and that this problem doesn’t continue on.” 

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