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Firm Charged With Storing ‘Mountains’ of Hazardous Waste

Times Staff Writer

A harbor-area scrap metal business that allegedly accumulated “mountains” of hazardous waste has been charged with 31 violations of state health and safety laws.

Hugo Neu-Proler Co., a firm that processes scrap metals for resale overseas, was charged Monday in Los Angeles Municipal Court with illegal storage of 32,000 tons of material containing hazardous waste. The Los Angeles city attorney’s office claims that the company kept automobile-shredder waste containing hazardous levels of PCBs and lead at its Terminal Island site at least three months longer than California law permits.

“We’re talking about a significant amount of hazardous waste--gigantic piles that looked like mountains,” said Deputy City Atty. Steven R. Tekosky. “You had to see it to believe it. It was like you were in the middle of mountain ranges and you could have an avalanche of hazardous waste at any time. . . . Whenever you’re talking about such massive quantities of hazardous waste, it’s very serious.”

Other Charges

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The company also has been accused of transporting its hazardous waste in vehicles not licensed for such activity and without the state-required records that track exactly where waste is generated, who collects it and where it is dumped.

In addition, officials have charged that at least nine trucks carrying Hugo Neu-Proler’s hazardous waste unloaded about 100 tons of it at an unauthorized location.

If the company is convicted of the alleged misdemeanors, it could face maximum fines, calculated per day of violation, totaling more than $13 million. As the charges are written, no jail sentence could be imposed because no individuals are named, but Tekosky said he is evaluating the possibility of amending the complaint to include several Hugo Neu-Proler officials.

Hugo Neu-Proler attorney Benjamin E. King said this week he could not comment specifically on the complaint because he had not reviewed it, but he maintained that the auto-shredder waste the company handles is not hazardous.

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Auto-shredder waste is considered hazardous under California law but not under federal laws.

Toxicity Denied

“We contend that the residue is not toxic at all,” said King, who declined to elaborate on why the company believes its waste is not hazardous. “We’re claiming that our residue has met state standards and we anticipate pleading innocent.”

King said the company has shipped all its waste to Arizona and Nevada--where auto-shredding remains are not classified as hazardous--and is no longer using its shredding facilities, which were a major portion of its operations. Only piles of scrap metal remain at the site, he said.

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The auto-shredding business, which operated for about 25 years until the company closed it in November after a Health Department inspection, extracted marketable metals from junked cars for shipment to overseas mills that melt down the metal to make new products. The metals, mostly steel, were salvaged after cars were chopped up in a giant shredding machine. The hazardous wastes were contained in unsalvaged auto materials. Forty of 100 employees were laid off when the shredder was shut down in November and about 20 of them have not been rehired.

The company, which King said is a joint venture between Hugo Neu Corp. of New York and Proler Steel Corp. of Houston, is one of about five auto shredders in Southern California. State health officials said some of the other companies also may be cited for violations.

Company Notified

Health officials said they notified Hugo Neu-Proler in March, 1984, of their classification of auto-shredder wastes as hazardous after they determined that the waste contained hazardous levels of soluble lead, which can be poisonous if inhaled or ingested. At that time, the state agency told the company that it would inspect its facility for compliance with California laws that regulate the storage and disposal of hazardous waste.

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State laws limit hazardous-waste storage to 90 days for industries that generate the waste but do not have a permit to operate as hazardous-waste storage facilities. Hugo Neu-Proler does not have such a permit.

During an inspection in September, 1984, health officials said they found mounds about 75 feet high and 100 feet long of auto-shredder waste that had been stored since before the March notification.

Jim McNally, manager of inspections and investigations for the state agency, said that after the inspection Hugo Neu-Proler in November attempted to dispose of some of the waste in Mexico, but was unable to do so. The trucks carrying the waste then went to an unlicensed facility in San Diego County, where county health officials reported them to the state Health Department.

No Certified Hauler

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“Wherever the waste was going, the company needed to have a certified hauler carrying it and a manifest showing where it had come from and where it was going,” McNally said. “They didn’t have those things, and when they took it to San Diego County, they took it to a place that was not authorized to receive it. These are violations.”

Twenty-seven of the 31 counts in the complaint are based on the company’s attempt in November, 1984, to ship the waste to Mexico, while three counts pertain to the alleged long-term storage of the hazardous waste. One count alleges that the company also illegally stored a transformer found to contain hazardous levels of PCBs, chemicals suspected of causing cancer.

The complaint filed this week against Hugo Neu-Proler comes in the wake of two others filed by the city attorney’s office last year. Those cases, for which arraignment will be held in September, charge the company with 180 counts of fire code violations and 28 counts of worker safety violations. The arraignment has been postponed while the company, in a series of appeals up to the state Supreme Court, argued unsuccessfully that the alleged violations were not criminal acts.

Named in the fire code and worker safety cases are Richard Neu, president of Hugo Neu-Proler; James Wotherspoon, personnel safety director, and Neil Kerney, plant manager. Tekosky of the city attorney’s office said he expects that all three cases will be heard at the same time. The arraignment for the hazardous-waste charges is scheduled for Aug. 8.

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‘Problems Rectified’

“All of the alleged fire problems and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) problems have been rectified--all without exception,” said King, the Hugo Neu-Proler attorney.

State Health Department records show that there were 19 fires at Hugo Neu-Proler from 1980 to 1984 because, in part, materials contained in the mounds of auto-shredder waste are subject to spontaneous combustion. In addition, worker safety investigators claim that two Hugo Neu-Proler employees suffered lung damage when a cylinder containing chlorine gas was ruptured at the plant. Included in city prosecutors’ charges is that the company failed to provide a training program that instructs workers how to properly handle machinery.

“All these charges show a pattern of lack of concern about how a business is run,” said Deputy City Atty. Arthur Walsh. “There is lack of concern about worker safety, fire code regulations and spreading hazardous waste. It’s a very sloppy organization.”

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King, the company’s attorney, said that “the company has received a series of awards for its safety procedures over the years.”


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