Despite insistence from a top staff member that disclosure of potential hazardous waste in a major landfill is of "critical importance" to the city and prospective buyers of the site, officials have removed the warning from Carson property records.
The 5-3 decision by the city Planning Commission last week to remove the environmental warning followed an often spirited debate about the nature of substances that underlie the vast acreage of the former Cal Compact Landfill.
The landfill, which was used mostly as a dump for household garbage from 1959 to about 1968, has been under review by state health officials since 1981. For the last three years it has been ranked on the state's priority list for cleanup of former waste disposal sites.
Representatives for the site's developer, Yavar Industries of Newport Beach, objected to the environmental warning on grounds that it would prove "fatal" to their chances of interesting prospective investors. The warning was to be included on city tract maps, the first of a series of required government documents that enable a major development to proceed toward construction.
'A Chilling Effect'
"It would have a chilling effect on our ability to finance and develop the property," said Yavar attorney Rick August. "We agree with the city's goals and objectives . . . (but) given the sensitivity to the hazardous-waste problem, lenders would be overwhelmed by that wording."
Moreover, Yavar representatives maintained, the city is inaccurate in describing the landfill as a potential hazardous-waste disposal site.
"This was never a hazardous-waste site and is not now," said attorney Peter Weiner, a Yavar representative and former special assistant for toxic substance control to former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. "The concerns about this particular place are minimal."
Weiner told the commission that he had discussions with state health officials as recently as two weeks ago about the vacant 180-acre property. Those discussions, he maintained, revealed that hazardous-waste problems on the landfill "are not in the cards . . . (are) not even a remote possibility."
Detection of Waste
However, in an interview last week, Lloyd Batham, a state Department of Health Services official who has supervised that agency's review of Cal Compact for the last four years, said that hazardous waste has been detected on the site and it is unclear whether that waste poses environmental problems.
"There hasn't been enough investigation done to know whether a health hazard or potential health hazard exists," Batham said. "We do know that hazardous waste has been deposited on that site, but the significance of those deposits is not fully known because (environmental studies) are incomplete."
State records show that the former landfill accepted such hazardous wastes as chlorinated hydrocarbons, halogenated aromatics and heavy metals. In addition, city officials say that asbestos and cancer-causing PCBs also were dumped there.
Some planning commissioners, however, said they would not support the environmental warning because the investigation of the site has not been completed.
Guilt or Innocence
"In Mexico, people are guilty and then they have to prove themselves innocent," said Commissioner Frank Gutierrez. "We're in the U. S. where you're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and here we are saying, 'These people are guilty without a hearing.' "
But Commissioner Elmer Bidwell contended, "The state has labeled the site as a possible hazardous waste site, and I feel it should stay that way until the state changes its mind. (The property) is on the list of possible hazardous waste sites."
Yavar representatives, though, may have scored their most decisive point during the commission's 1 1/2-hour consideration of the matter when they explained that prospective buyers of the site would be well-to-do investors who are experienced in real estate practices.
They said during standard business procedures such an investor would review the site's property title abstract, which states that the site is a former landfill. However, that document does not state that the property contains hazardous waste, according to August, the attorney.
Commission Chairman Maurice Tarling, who cast the deciding vote, explained in an interview last week, "The people who are going to buy this are millionaires. They know what they're doing; they are not first-time home buyers. . . . This site has been sitting there so long. If they think they can do something with it, let them do it."
However, Community Development Director Patricia Nemeth, who argued unsuccessfully of the "critical importance" of keeping the environmental warning on city records, maintained that even wealthy investors may not fully realize what they are getting into without an adequate warning.
"(The representatives for the developer) say that these (investors) are going to be some really sophisticated buyers," Nemeth said. "But out-of-state investors don't always know about California law and they might not realize exactly what they're buying into. . . . PCBs are one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man, and we've been told that PCBs were dumped there."
Commissioners voting to remove the environmental warning were Tarling, Gutierrez, James Bradley, Joseph Harlow and Duncan Sillers. Opponents were Bidwell, Thomas Clayton and William Takahashi. Commissioner Sixto Abao was absent.
10-Year Development Effort
Attempts to develop the landfill, vacant since the late 1960s, have been going on for 10 years. Since 1981, the city has awarded three one-year extensions on tract map applications.
The site, one of the largest vacant parcels in Carson, is bounded generally by Main Street on the west, the San Diego Freeway on the east, Del Amo Boulevard on the north and Torrance Boulevard on the south.
Nemeth said the commission's rejection of the environmental warning also may raise questions about the city's liability. She said city officials did not request an environmental review before they approved the tentative tract map because of their intent to provide full disclosure regarding the nature of the site to all parties involved.
Other environmental issues surrounding the hazardous-waste findings in the landfill will be addressed during public hearings necessary for the developer to obtain his remaining city permits, she said.