A major harbor-area hauling company has been charged by the Los Angeles city attorney with illegally operating a hazardous-waste facility.
Two counts of criminal misconduct have been filed against Industrial Waste Engineering and its president, Joseph R. Mathewson, charging that the defendants knowingly violated California laws that require all hazardous-waste facilities be certified by the state Department of Health Services.
The Superior Court complaints--which officials say come after a yearlong investigation of the company's waste practices by the state health department and at times by the FBI--follow charges filed by the city attorney last October alleging that Mathewson forged signatures on state documents that detailed where his company's hazardous waste is shipped, when and by whom.
In those complaints, prosecutors also claim that because records were misrepresented, the destination of such hazardous wastes as hydrofluoric acid, poison and flammable liquids remains uncertain.
"These are very, very serious violations of the law," said Steven R. Tekosky, head of the environmental section for the city attorney's office. "They do pose an enormous peril to the general public."
James McNally, manager of investigations and inspections for the toxic substances control division of the state health department, said, "I think the evidence we have will substantiate our allegations. There are some serious problems in the way (Industrial Waste Engineering) handled wastes."
Industrial Waste Engineering, also known as American Standard Industrial Services Inc., has been certified as a hauler of hazardous waste since 1981. Under state laws, however, a hauler is not allowed to store waste on its property more than 96 hours.
State officials allege that during a January inspection of the Wilmington hauler's site at 930 Goodrich Ave., they found 23 drums of hazardous waste that had been unlawfully stored for 61 days.
Mathewson, the company president, does not dispute the health department's claim that the waste was stored longer than California laws permit, but he maintains that the state and federal governments are as much to blame for the violation as his company.
Industrial Waste, Mathewson said, does about 80% of its business with the U.S. Department of Defense, which requires haulers to pick up hazardous waste from its military bases within 30 days of a government request. He said that with the recent closings of two California disposal sites--BKK in West Covina and Rio Bravo near Bakersfield--his company has only one outlet in the Western United States for its drums of liquid waste. That disposal site, located near Kettleman City, Calif., takes six to eight weeks to approve a hauler's request to dump waste materials, Mathewson said.
In the meantime, Mathewson asserted, "We are caught in a regulatory conflict between the state and federal governments. It's a Catch-22: The federal government tells you to pick it up or they'll default on your contract, and if you pick it up you have nowhere to take it under state laws. These charges are not what they seem, and that will be proven in court. We intend to vigorously fight this thing."
Mathewson said he has notified the federal government and the state health department of his dilemma, but has received no response. State officials, however, say Mathewson's letter was sent after their inspections that uncovered the violations.
"We're not trying to hide anything here," Mathewson said. "We're were not lawbreakers, and we're not intentionally going out and storing things on our site."
McNally, from the state health department, contended in an interview last week that if a hauler has the type of problem that Mathewson described, he should resolve it before he collects hazardous waste from the industry that generates it.
"There's no doubt that the landfills are restricting the waste they accept," McNally said. "However, the generator and the hauler should make proper arrangements prior to the pickup of the waste. And if there are still problems, the generator and the hauler should make arrangements with a third party, someone who has been authorized to store hazardous waste."
McNally added, "Mathewson found himself with the cart before the horse. He's arranging interstate transportation of hazardous waste and running into timing problems. The bottom line is that he should have gotten a permit before he made all these arrangements with various companies and the Defense Department. I understand his problems, but that doesn't mean that the state is going to ignore violations of the Hazardous Waste Control (Act) in the meantime."
Application in Abeyance
Mathewson applied a year ago for a state permit that would allow his company to store hazardous waste. That application--for which Mathewson said he invested about $30,000--is in abeyance until the pending criminal charges are resolved.
Mathewson also has maintained that the Los Angeles charges of misrepresentation on state documents are incorrect because the materials involved were not wastes but only hazardous materials, for which such records need not be kept. Maximum penalties for each of the four counts with which Mathewson has been charged are a $25,000 fine and a year in county jail.
While state health officials and city prosecutors expect that a court resolution of the Industrial Waste case may take anywhere from several months to several years, they say that the case is one illustration of a broader problem: the unmonitored handling of hazardous wastes.
Although companies that handle hazardous waste are required by law to notify the state of their activities, many businesses may not have done so, officials say.
"I think these kind of things are very prevalent," McNally said. "I could have twice as many inspectors working 24 hours a day and we still wouldn't catch all the violators. We get phone calls every day from people telling us that someone is operating without a permit. The greatest problem with these businesses that violate the law is that their operations are totally uncontrolled."
When a business is granted an environmental permit to operate a hazardous waste facility, the state imposes conditions on what kind of wastes an operator may handle. In addition, the state requires plans for general operations, emergencies and closure.
The state also inspects the facilities it regulates. According to McNally, those inspections are now conducted about once every seven months.
"The problem is that the responsibilities for complying and reporting amount to an honor system," said Tekosky, of the city attorney's office. "The state depends on companies coming forward and getting permits, (but) there is a tremendous incentive to violate the law because the profits are so high. I would imagine that there are a lot of these violations."