Ruling Spurs Move for New Waste Laws

Times Staff Writer

In the aftermath of a Los Angeles decision to allow the continued operation of a hazardous-waste plant here, residents and Los Angeles officials say they are seeking to change the laws that regulate such facilities.

Residents last week began to coordinate efforts to seek state inspections of the Wilmington waste facility--North American Environmental Inc.--and city officials have recently initiated action on five separate measures that could significantly tighten controls on hazardous-waste operations citywide.

The two most recent of these Los Angeles measures have been proposed by chief zoning administrator Franklin P. Eberhard, after his recent consideration of whether to permit the continued operation of such Wilmington hazardous-waste facilities as North American.

Appeal by Company

North American had appealed orders to shut down, and on Feb. 14 Eberhard handed down a decision in its favor. The city's Department of Building and Safety had ordered the shutdown, saying that the property zoning for the company's site did not permit hazardous waste storage and transfer operations. The shutdown orders were served in mid-December after a Times inquiry prompted a city inspection of the property, where hazardous waste operations have been conducted since 1981.

Eberhard, who has the authority to hear zoning appeals, said that the wide parameters of Los Angeles zoning laws prompted his decision to grant the appeal.

"I think the city codes need to more adequately deal with the issue of hazardous waste," Eberhard said. "There may be some question as to whether this facility (North American) is the best thing for that area, but our codes don't currently address that."

Permitted by Ordinance

The city's zoning ordinance has long permitted hazardous waste storage and transfer operations like North American's to exist in light- and heavy-manufacturing zones regardless of their proximity to residential areas or the nature of the toxic substances they handle.

The North American plant, at 217 N. Lagoon Ave., is about a block from Wilmington homes and 1 1/2 blocks from the Wilmington Recreation Center, a major community park. The facility stores, consolidates and ships highly toxic chemical compounds called PCBs, which are known to cause cancer.

While Eberhard was considering whether to allow the facility to operate, he proposed to a City Council subcommittee that the city require a conditional-use permit for any new facility that stores, transfers or treats hazardous waste, and require that all existing facilities obtain a permit within a city-designated period of time. Both measures would require council approval.

If such measures were approved, residents would have the opportunity to comment on community-based waste facilities during formal public hearings. In addition, the city could impose conditions on the nature of a facility's operation.

Said Eberhard: "With this permit process, we could limit the kind of wastes a facility handles or fix a certain period of time for its operation--or whatever is needed. We would look at each case individually."

North American officials could not be reached for comment on the proposed regulations.

Other Measures

Three other measures, introduced Jan. 30 by Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the harbor area, would also tighten city regulations governing hazardous waste facilities.

Flores has asked that the State Department of Health Services--which has authority to grant permits for hazardous-waste facilities--check local zoning laws and conduct public hearing before it issues temporary environmental permits for the plants. These procedures would require approval by the state Legislature.

The state currently conducts hearings only for those facilities that are considered for permanent permits, even though the temporary documents are valid in many cases for as long as five years.

In her other two motions--which were drawn up immediately after Wilmington's recent hazardous-waste controversy--Flores requested that inspectors be assigned to hazardous-waste facilities and that all city permit applications be revised to include information about whether a company handles hazardous materials.

Need to Keep Track

Said Flores in an interview: "Everybody's been remiss on this issue. The state's giving out interim permits without checking with the city for zoning (conflicts). And the city is not even telling the city what's going on. We give out business licenses without ever inquiring about hazardous-waste activities. We need to have somebody keeping track of what's going on."

The decision to allow North American to proceed with its hazardous-waste operations comes in the wake of Los Angeles' decisions to halt hazardous-waste activities at two other Wilmington facilities, owned by the IT Corp.

Those decisions, issued three weeks ago, stated that the property zoning at IT's Wilmington facilities prohibits the company's hazardous-waste activities because they include treatment processes that expose toxic chemicals to air and involve chemical reactions. The city said that North American was not engaged in such operations.

North American officials said they have not yet reviewed the city's decision on IT Corp. so they could not comment on the matter.

IT, meanwhile, has further appealed its decision with the city's Board of Zoning Appeals, which will consider the matter at an as-yet-unscheduled public hearing.

Residents Disappointed

Many Wilmington residents, who hailed the IT decisions, say they are disappointed in the city's decision to allow North American's continued operation. But they also say they will ask for increased state policing of the hazardous-waste facility. The state, the only agency currently monitoring the plants, inspects them every one to two years.

State records show that North American has been operating since 1983 with an interim state permit, which was transferred to the company from Pepper Industries Inc., the facility's former operator. Pepper was closed down after a fire and subsequent bankruptcy in June, 1983, according to state documents.

"We plan to ask the Department of Health Services to inspect the facility more frequently and without prior warning," said resident Jo Ann Wysocki, president of the Harbor Coalition Against Toxic Waste. "We believe (North American) is violating the terms of its permit. We believe that the (state) should come down here and check our claims. People in that office have to get out and do some legwork."

Angelo Bellomo, chief of the Southern California Section of the Toxic Substances Control Division for the state health department, said that his agency would respond to the coalition's request.

"I certainly want to know about that," Bellomo said. "If anyone has information to suggest that any violations are taking place, we'll certainly respond."

Allegations by Coalition

Coalition members have alleged that in the past, North American has been treating hazardous waste, which is prohibited at the Wilmington location. However, Eberhard, the zoning administrator, said that city inspectors found no evidence of exposure to or treatment of PCBs during recent visits to the site.

"When we first looked at North American in late December, there was considerable processing equipment there, including a 5,000-gallon tank truck," said coalition member Charles Stevenson, a Wilmington resident and chemical engineer. "They were doing treating there when the city told them to close. We have pictures of the equipment."

Coalition members and residents also say that they will work to support city legislation that is now being considered by two Los Angeles council subcommittees and the city's Hazardous-Waste Task Force. Wilmington has at least six state-approved hazardous-waste plants, according to state records.

"If we don't fight each one of these battles, Wilmington will become a center for hazardous-waste activities," Wysocki said. "These companies have to realize that there are residents here and the residents care about their community."

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