The Los Angeles City Council tentatively approved an ordinance Wednesday that would require more than 56,000 businesses to register toxic chemicals stored in buildings throughout the city, a measure strongly supported by fire officials as a “model for the country.”
The measure, approved by a 10-0 vote, is designed to aid the city in establishing a multimillion-dollar computerized inventory of hazardous substances stored or used by businesses. The council is expected to give final approval next week.
The ordinance is aimed at preventing the kind of problems that firefighters encountered in an April 13 blaze at a Sun Valley chemical warehouse where 56 people, including 52 firefighters, were sickened by toxic fumes.
Fire officials complained that they were unaware that the warehouse contained toxic chemicals, including cyanide. Similar complaints were made in connection with recent chemical fires that forced the evacuation of entire neighborhoods in Anaheim in Orange County and in Thermal in Riverside County.
The inventory would provide firefighters with advance warning of the contents of burning buildings, said Fire Marshal Craig Drummond. It would also be open to public inspection.
“Let’s say you live next to an industrial park, and a cloud of something goes drifting across your backyard,” said Battalion Chief Jim Young. “If you get the address (of the business) and come to us, we can tell you what you might have been exposed to.”
Other cities require companies that possess hazardous substances to report the types and amounts. But no city has as extensive a system of tracking hazardous substances as that proposed by Los Angeles, Drummond said.
Early next year, the Fire Department plans to mail requests for information to 56,000 of the city’s 268,000 businesses, primarily those industrial and manufacturing firms that are known to use chemicals. Officials said they expect the number of businesses that should be on file to grow but they could not say by how much. Among the targeted businesses are gas stations, dry cleaners and paint stores.
Businesses having toxic chemicals would be assessed an annual fee to cover the cost of the inventory system. No specific fees have been proposed, but Young said he expects the fee to range from $10 to $200 a year depending on the amount of chemicals stored by a business.
Firms that do not reply to requests for information would be visited by fire inspectors and be subject to additional fees. Failure to comply with the ordinance would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
No public opposition to the measure was expressed at Wednesday’s council meeting.
Councilman Marvin Braude predicted that the complaints would begin when assessments to meet the cost of the inventory program begin reaching businesses early next year.
Councilman Howard Finn, who proposed the ordinance, countered that the city risks heavy damages in a lawsuit if a firefighter is disabled by toxic fumes. “One incident can cost us more than this whole ordinance,” he said.
Before the inventory system can be set up, the council must approve an estimated $11.6-million appropriation to pay for the needed equipment and personnel, as well as approve the fees to be assessed on businesses. Those matters are expected to go before the council later this month.
State legislation also has been proposed to require companies to register hazardous materials with authorities.