`Now All We've Got Left Is The Pits'

It's hard to find a smile these days in Lindsay, a small farming town in California's Central Valley. Stray dogs wander down the center of Elmwood Street, the main drag. A lone truck rumbles by. Across the street, a marquee still advertises a long-forgotten production of the old comedy hit Never Too Late.

In fact, it may be far too late for the people in this town of 9,000. On Sept. 17, Lindsay Olive Growers, the town's 76-year-old icon and largest employer, sold its brand name and inventory for $19.1 million to Bell-Carter Foods Inc., a Northern California food processor, then slammed the door shut on its olive-processing plant on Sept. 18. More than 350 people lost their jobs, and unemployment is expected to creep to 35%, from 15.3% in September.

The closing shattered Lindsay's collective psyche. Worse, it left the town with a $30 million environmental cleanup bill that could bankrupt city coffers. "They used to say, 'It's a nice town, a great olive,' " says Adolfo Salinas, a Lindsay native. "Now all we've got left is the pits."

BRINY MESS. When the plant's profits peaked at $10.5 million in 1982, Lindsay had a bustling downtown, with olive workers fueling most of the retail business. In 1986, the processor, owned since 1916 by a cooperative of local farmers, dealt with 400 growers and employed 600 workers with a payroll of more than $6.5 million. In those palmy days, more than 30% of all California olives were shipped to Lindsay for processing. "We had an international identity with our olives," says Mayor John Maynard, who owns the local Western Auto store.

But while Lindsay's olives were making a name for themselves worldwide, the company's reputation was beginning to stink here at home. The problem was 192 acres of seven holding ponds built by the city in the years 1967-74 to hold the plant's briny waste. As early as 1951, California water-resources officials warned that the high salt content in the wastewater was polluting the groundwater. Salt water was used to preserveolives, move them along on conveyor belts, separate the pitted from the un-pitted, and fill cans. The holding ponds were built to contain the salty sludge.

Residents nearby say the putrid smell from the ponds forces them to keep windows shut and doors closed. Lillian Shewman can't barbecue outside because the stench makes her sick to her stomach. "This place smells like human waste," says Shewman, who lives about three-quarters of a mile away from the ponds. "I can't believe I moved from Los Angeles to this." She was one of the first to complain about the foul odor to California's Attorney General in 1982.

Local farmers complain that the ponds leak, contaminating the groundwater that nourishes fruit trees and crops. Large gashes and rodent scratches have been found in the 1974-vintage, single-ply, plastic linings. Nick Leontieff, a farmer and part owner of F&L Farm Co., says because of leaks it's like spraying "ocean water" on his 60 acres of grapes, half of which turn crusty brown and burnt yellow from the accumulation of salts in his vines. Pipes and hoses have to be routinely cleaned to remove hard, white crystals. Residents are forced to buy bottled water. "It is a mess, a real heartache," Leontieff says.

TAINTED WATER. The city has been slow to clean up the mess, even though it has been receiving about $900,000 per year from Lindsay Olive Growers to operate and maintain the ponds. In 1984, new California regulations required that the ponds be lined with two sheets of plastic instead of one, along with layers of both clay and gravel. The city balked at the new rule, maintaining that the ponds didn't leak and it would be too costly to build new ones. "This is speculation on my part," says Scot Townsend, Lindsay's assistant city manager, "but maybe things were so bad that previous city officials just didn't know what to do." Now, it's too late.

The first of a series of lawsuits was filed against the city in 1986 for allowing tainted water to pollute underground wells. The city was forced to pay $2.6 million in damages to three farm companies in 1991. F&L Farm was awarded $374,896. Several cases, including Lillian Shewman's, are still pending.

While the city was fighting environmental battles with residents, the processor was having troubles of its own. It posted $18 million in losses--its first ever--from 1989 to 1991, and blamed several unsuccessful attempts to sell off the plant on the environmental liability attached to the ponds. This year, things got worse. The National Bank of Cooperatives refused to fund farmers' harvest advances and was pressuring the processor to pay $23 million worth of loans in default. To avoid bankruptcy, Lindsay Olive Growers was forced to close the plant. "I could tell you this plant is worth $50 million, but with the ponds attached, it ain't worth nothing," says Robert D. Rossio, who was president of Lindsay Olive Growers for 12 years.

Outside the plant on closing day, an angry mob gathered around the six-foot statue of a black olive in the company's parking lot. Shouting, "You lied to us!," about 150 employees jeered Rossio when he told them the news. "You people misled us," said a tearful Jack Daniels. "You told us not to look for other jobs . . . . I got lied to!" Pat Hubbard, an 18-year veteran of the canning line, hugged co-worker Gertie Thompson. "We've been here forever," said Hubbard. "What else can we do?"

`LEFT US NOTHING.' This isn't the first economic blow to strike Lindsay. Two years ago, a chilly December storm froze the town's other major crop, Valencia and navel oranges, and unemployment hit 57%. But it surely is the most personal. Many of the townspeople either worked at the olive factory or knew someone who did. Donald Landers, a 64-year-old hardware salesman, hawked candy to workers when he was in fourth grade. "It's how we made Christmas money," he says. Virginia Brown started as an olive sorter in 1960. "We were a family," she says. "They even took our label. They left us nothing."

The town is slowly recovering from the shock. The growers now sell their crops to Bell-Carter Foods. City administrators are scrambling for an estimated $30 million from federal and state agencies to clean up the ponds. They are suing the processor for $456,000 to pay for the upkeep of the ponds from July through September of this year. On Nov. 15, a mock funeral procession led by a band of black-clad mourners and the town's football team wound its way down Lindsay's main street to the city park. People wept. Green ribbons bearing the legend "We believe in Lindsay" were handed out. And in the shadow of the Lindsay Olive Bowl's crumbling, olive-shaped baseball scoreboard, as a trumpeter sounded Taps, a casket crammed with cans of olives, oranges, and other symbols of the town's misfortunes was interred. Said Mayor Maynard: "It's time to bury our bad luck--and get on with our lives."