Below the steamy eastern skyline of Wilmington, at the border of Los Angeles, lies the sprawling site of the Harbor-area Texaco Inc. oil refinery.
Near Wilmington’s business district, surrounded by union halls, a scattered assemblage of modest homes and several auto-wrecking yards, lies the block-long headquarters of IT Corp.'s Harbor-area trucking operations.
While their appearances are vastly different, these two industrial operations share a common distinction: Both are hazardous-waste facilities.
That distinction has recently fueled a wave of community protest in Wilmington and a subsequent flurry of concern by Los Angeles officials.
And while most of that attention has focused on three such facilities, records on file with the California Department of Health Services show that the state has current environmental permits for at least nine facilities in Wilmington and San Pedro for storage, transfer or treatment of hazardous waste.
Those Harbor-area operations are Roehl Corp., Carrasco Vacuum Truck Service, Gatx Tank Storage Terminals Corp., Western Fuel Oil Co. and Chevron USA Inc., North American Environmental Inc., Texaco Inc. and two IT Corp. facilities.
The nine operations vary from those, like Texaco, that only store and treat wastes they generate through their oil refining business, to facilities, like IT Corp, that pick up waste from numerous industries and treat it before they take it to faraway landfills. “Hazardous waste” is broadly defined in California and can involve chemicals varying from the remains of a shredded car muffler to the cancer-causing chemicals called PCBs.
That these facilities exist in industrial areas like Wilmington and San Pedro, many Harbor-area residents say, is not as surprising as the widespread lack of awareness of them.
“We haven’t been told about these businesses,” said Wilmington resident Eleanor Montano. “I think we should be informed. It’s unfortunate for the citizens to buy properties without knowing what’s on the other side of the fence. We have all these chemicals and gases right next door to us without even knowing that they are there.”
Said resident Jo Ann Wysocki, president of the Harbor Coalition Against Toxic Waste, “I feel someone should have informed the community. The question is, ‘Did anybody know besides the state Department of Health Services?’ ”
Los Angeles officials, for one, say they did not know about the Harbor-area facilities.
Both Handle PCBs
Last month, city officials said they became aware for the first time of hazardous waste operations at IT Corp.--where such activities have been conducted since 1926. After a subsequent review of the city map revealed a zoning conflict, IT was served shutdown orders for hazardous-waste operations at its Wilmington properties.
A week later, similar shutdown orders were served at North American, for a site where hazardous waste has been handled for at least the last 1 1/2 years. City officials were alerted to the facility’s operations after inquiries by The Times.
Both hazardous-waste facilities were permitted to handle PCBs.
While it appears that the Harbor area’s six other hazardous-waste facilities do not have similar zoning conflicts, city awareness of the operations remains limited.
“I’m not aware of any (facilities) other than IT and North American,” said James Carney, chief inspector for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
Said Raymond Kellam, head of the Harbor-area Department of Building and Safety, which served shutdown orders to IT and North American, “I’m not aware of any others in this area.”
Part of the problem with information and coordination, many say, is that government agencies did not quickly adjust to public concern that emerged in the early 1970s about the potential danger of hazardous waste.
The Los Angeles zoning ordinance, for example, does not yet have specific provisions for hazardous-waste facilities. Los Angeles city business licenses do not make specific reference to hazardous-waste facilities. Industrial waste permits are issued for some hazardous-waste facilities that use city sewers, but that information is not routinely circulated.
The county, which is responsible for monitoring an estimated 20,000 industries that generate hazardous waste but keep it on-site for 90 days or less, has only identified about half of those industries, according to Joseph Karbus of the county Health Services Department. The county program, which includes inspections once every two years, was not in effect until 1982.
Council Move Planned
To help give the city more information, Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores is planning a City Council motion that would require all applications for city permits to include data about whether a company is involved in hazardous-waste operations. The motion would also provide that an inspector specifically monitor Harbor-area plants and change the zoning code to permit waste facilities only in heavy industrial areas.
In addition, Flores’ motion asks state officials to notify the city of all waste facilities.
Lack of state notification, some city officials and local activists say, leaves them in the dark because the state has the only complete list of facilities. The state Department of Health Services has authority over all major waste treatment, disposal and storage facilities.
In 1976, federal legislation was passed that changed the way hazardous-waste facilities are regulated. The regulations, completed in 1980, required all businesses that handle hazardous waste to notify the federal government.
In 1981, the federal Environmental Protection Agency transferred its records of waste facilities and enforcement authority to the state. After the state received the federal records and conducted telephone interviews, operators were issued temporary state permits.
State officials did not generally notify residents or local governments of those existing operations until they came up for final environmental permits, which require public hearings. Three years later, those hearings are still being scheduled.
“I find it very strange that IT Corp. goes for three years with these interim status documents for which there are no public hearings,” said Wilmington resident Charles Stevenson, a chemical engineer and member of the Harbor Coalition Against Toxic Waste. “Three years is a long time for a community to have a facility without knowing anything about it.”
As it now stands, officials estimate that only 10% of California’s 800 hazardous-waste facilities are operating with final permits. In the Harbor area, only one of the nine facilities--Roehl Corp.--has been issued a final permit.
But California officials say that it is not their responsibility to notify local governments and community residents until it comes time to issue a final permit.
“I believe everybody ought to know the pattern of chemical and industrial uses in their community,” said Angelo Bellomo, chief of the Southern California Section of Toxic Substances Control Division for the state health department.
But, he continued, that should be the job of local government. “It makes sense on a local level,” he said.
Bellomo said he supported hazardous waste disclosure ordinances like the one in Santa Monica, which requires the city to keep its own records of hazardous-waste facilities.
Bellomo said the state should not be faulted for the recent Los Angeles zoning problems with IT and North American. He said that city officials should review zoning matters when they issue business licenses for hazardous-waste facilities.
“We only assume that the permits issued by the city are appropriate,” he said. “The assumption is made that the city has issued a land use permit that it has some confidence in.”
Said another state official, “The facility has a business license. My goodness, the city should know what’s going on.”
Zoning and notification are not the only issues of contention between the state and Wilmington residents. Among other major concerns, say members of the Harbor Coalition Against Toxic Waste, is the frequency of the state’s inspection of hazardous-waste facilities.
“The one inspection that was performed by the state Department of Health Services at the IT facility turned up more than 100 drums of toluene diisocynate, which is a close relative to the material that killed all those people in India,” said Stevenson, the chemical engineer. “IT (Corp.) said this was an unusual circumstance. If an inspection was done once a week, there’d probably be a lot of unusual circumstances.”
The state’s current inspection goal is once a year, although officials say that if they see problems they re-inspect facilities.
Said Jim Smith, from the toxic control division’s surveillance and enforcement unit, “I don’t think once a year is enough, but the state’s permit is like a driver’s license. You’re supposed to follow the rules all the time, but every time you go over 55, there isn’t a cop to catch you. As a practical matter, you can’t always be there when the violation occurs. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it happens.”