LAFD failed to inspect hundreds of hazardous sites, state says

State EPA report finds that the L.A. Fire Department failed to inspect hundreds of hazardous sites across city

The Los Angeles Fire Department has failed to properly inspect hundreds of hazardous sites scattered across the city, exposing the public to increased risks from potential spills and mishandling of toxic substances, according to a state report released Friday.

The 24-page California Environmental Protection Agency study found breakdowns in numerous aspects of the LAFD's oversight and monitoring of chemical factories, laboratories and other storage facilities that deal with dangerous substances.

"Their program has fallen apart," said Jim Bohon, head of the state unit that conducted the review. "They are failing in environmental management in a very gross way."

The findings highlight a weak spot in a larger patchwork of state and local agencies charged with keeping the groundwater, bays and soils free of dangerous contaminants, especially those in areas near urban dwellers.

City fire inspectors were cited for 19 deficiencies, including failing for years to visit facilities required to be inspected regularly. In other cases, the Fire Department failed to ensure companies handling hazardous supplies and waste conducted tests to detect leaks in buried storage tanks such as those found at gas stations, the report said.

"Fire guys like to put out fires and rescue people," Bohon said. "They aren't liking as much to go out and make sure people are [checking] their underground tank properly."

Bohon said he did not have a complete count of hazardous sites in the city. But the state study found at least several hundred had not been inspected as required, he said.

The new report also noted that a number of problems haven't been resolved since at least 2011, when a previous review criticized the same LAFD inspection program.

If a plan to correct the problems isn't in place in 30 days, the state said it could take the unusual step of stripping the LAFD of its inspection duties and assigning them elsewhere.

L.A. city fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas promised to initiate immediate reforms.

"I am disappointed that we lost focus," Terrazas said. He expressed confidence in "the positive steps we are taking to correct these mistakes."

According to department officials, those steps include strengthening leadership of the inspection program, increasing staff and assessing how to use technology to improve monitoring.

The state report presents another major challenge for the chief, who was appointed last year by Mayor Eric Garcetti with a mandate to reform an agency buffeted by controversies over its hiring practices, 911 performance and overall administration.

Last year, a consultant hired by the city's top budget analyst found a "cultural aversion to change" and a lack of accountability among LAFD command staff. Among the shortcomings cited were failures to adopt new technology, control costs and speed up emergency responses.

Reacting to the latest state report Friday, mayoral spokesman Yusef Robb said "this is exactly why we launched an aggressive agenda of reform at the Fire Department.

"We are confident in the chief we brought in to fix this."

The broader state oversight of hazardous sites was the subject of a 2013 Times series. Those reports documented deep flaws in the monitoring of hazardous waste and materials across California, including a controversial Exide Technologies battery plant in neighboring Vernon, beyond the LAFD's jurisdiction.

ben.welsh@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Pringle contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
67°