Law Requiring Index of Toxic Chemicals Has Tentative OK

Times Staff Writer

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 ordinance, 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.

Proposed by Councilman Howard Finn, the so-called “right to know” ordinance is aimed at preventing the kinds 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 Thermal in Riverside County.

Warning of Contents

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.

“Many jurisdictions have an ordinance on the books, but there is no enforcement. There is no data base,” Drummond said. “It is strictly a paper tiger in most jurisdictions. We’re going to make an inspection of every business. There will be a listing of all hazardous materials in every business that will be in a computer system that’s available to the Fire Department when we’re on the scene of a fire.

“No other jurisdiction has that kind of capability. They have a right-to-know ordinance in name only. But there is no detail behind it.”

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 affected businesses to grow but 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 quantity 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.

Complaints Expected

No public opposition to the measure was expressed at Wednesday’s council meeting.

Councilman Marvin Braude predicted that complaints would begin when assessments to meet the cost of the inventory program begin reaching businesses early next year. Braude, who had earlier held up approval of the ordinance because of concerns about the cost to businesses, voted for the measure after being assured that the fees would not be imposed without another council vote.

Finn, who represents the heavily industrial northeast San Fernando Valley, countered that the city now 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 asapprove the fees to be assessed on businesses. Those items are expected to go before the council later this month.