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Eye-in-Sky Helicopter Keeping Tabs on Toxic Waste Disposal in Santa Fe Springs

Times Staff Writer

Hovering 500 feet above Santa Fe Springs in a Hughes 500 helicopter last week, Battalion Chief LeRoy Kehret saw what appeared to be a liquid leaking onto the ground between two tanks at an oil refinery.

He noted it and would later ask a fire inspector to investigate.

“We need to find out what it is. If it’s water, then it’s no big thing,” Kehret said.

In a city where 85% of the land is zoned for industry, the possibility of having accidental--and intentional--leaks, spills and dumping of hazardous materials is all too real.

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The concern over that possibility has been deep enough that the Santa Fe Springs Fire Department began a four-month pilot program in April of inspecting key industries and open stretches of land in the city from the air.

The information culled from the monthly flights, now in their third month, is mainly used to help firefighters map strategy for fighting future fires at chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites, said Fire Chief Robert C. Wilson.

Keeping Tabs

But the flights will also help firefighters keep tabs on such activities as the stockpiling of 55-gallon drums containing hazardous materials and illegal dumping in sparsely populated areas.

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So far, the aerial searches have not found any serious problems. But Wilson said that the city has had incidents of illegal dumping of hazardous materials in the past, and they appear to be on the increase.

“It’s a real problem to get rid of” hazardous materials, Wilson said, adding that the closest dump is in Santa Barbara County. “It has become so expensive that people are sitting on it rather than getting rid of it.”

Fire officials, who take turns going aloft in the copter, are looking for stains left on concrete, hoses entering flood control channels and any strange discharges onto the ground.

The increase in illegal hazardous waste disposal led the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to start a similar program in April.

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Gift From State

The state gave the sheriff’s department a helicopter to be used exclusively for searching out illegal dumps and dumping of hazardous materials, said Sgt. Mike Whitman, coordinator of the hazardous materials surveillance program.

“We found there was a radical increase of illegal dumping in 1985 from 1984,” Whitman said. In 1985, there were 298 incidents related to hazardous materials and 119 of those were illegal dumps. He said the incidents rose 75% over 1984.

Besides helping firefighters monitor possible illegal activity, Kehret said, the flights also provide fire officials with a “bird’s eye view” of the city and help them see things they could not normally see on a drive-by or personal inspection.

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“From a chopper, the city is laid below you. It’s a perspective you couldn’t pick up during an inspection,” said Kehret, who trains new firefighters.

Wilson said that the first time he went up in the helicopter he didn’t know what to expect. “I never realized what a view you did get. I got real enthused about it. It’s amazing what you see behind buildings.”

Not Many in State

The city created the program--one of a handful in the state--by allocating one hour of its helicopter patrol time to the aerial inspections, said Fred Latham, assistant city manager.

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“We felt the problems of environmental hazards were very important in Santa Fe Springs,” Latham said.

Santa Fe Springs gets together with Norwalk, La Mirada, Pico Rivera and South El Monte to purchase each month about 300 hours of daily helicopter patrol time from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The city, which gets approximately 30 hours of this service a month, pays about $50,000 a year.

The idea for aerial checks for hazardous material was first suggested last year by then-Councilman Luis Escontrias.

“I was looking at the scope of the problem and how best to address it,” said Escontrias, who made arrangements last year to test the idea by doing a trial run with Battalion Chief Norbert Schnabel. “It’s a good approach to go up by helicopter. It is not only useful for policing but also for preventive” work, he said.

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In the Lead

Santa Fe Springs is a leader among cities in sending up a helicopter with the specific intention of looking for illegal dumping and spilling of hazardous materials. Other agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department, use helicopters to transport accident victims and to do controlled brush burns, but if they find illegal disposal of hazardous materials it is incidental.

Whitman of the sheriff’s department said the program is a pioneering concept whose time has come.

“The idea was to get an edge on” small generators who illegally dispose of hazardous materials, Whitman said. “We need to stop the stuff from getting in the environment.”

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The sheriff’s unit will search Los Angeles County grid by grid, beginning in the remote brush areas, Whitman said. “If a dump occurs, hopefully we can clean it up before it contaminates the environment.”

Whitman would not say how many times or how often the sheriff’s unit takes to the sky as it searches for clandestine activity. “We’re hoping to catch the people who are doing the bad things at the time,” he said.

Progressive Idea

Harry Steimer, general manager of the Sacramento-based State Firemen’s Assn., praised the sheriff’s department and Santa Fe Springs programs. “It’s a progressive idea. I commend them for trying it,” he said.

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For many years, helicopters have been used to spot possible fire hazards on mountainsides and other remote areas, but, Steimer said, “This kind of thing is a modernization, or extension, of that activity. It’s always paid off. Prevention is the most important part of our job.”

Fire officials said there had been some concern over the legality of aerial inspections but a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision held that such searches are legal. “There is no question it’s legal to do this,” Whitman said.

The justices, in two separate cases, held that there can be no legitimate expectation of privacy in a fenced backyard, and that an industrial plant is comparable to an open field and subject to aerial searches.

Wilson said he has not heard any complaints from businesses in the city. He said fire officials do not fly over the city’s residential areas.

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Oil Spill Spotted

Though the searches have yet to uncover any illegal activity, they have paid off in other ways. When Schnabel went up with Escontrias on the first test flight, he spotted an oil leak, which was fixed after he notified refinery employees. “It was such an isolated area, the only way to see it was from a helicopter,” Wilson said.

Fire officials said that no other problems have been found. The flights have served, however, to help them monitor industries in the city and open spaces that could be sites of illegal dumps.

Schnabel said there is now a strong emphasis on planning for potential fires.

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“This city has hundreds of businesses. If we have a fire here, we want to know if the best thing is to have the trucks go through the back gate there, or if we have to put a water tower next door,” he said. Planning for fighting fires is “more difficult to do on the ground,” he said.

Problem of Drums

Another concern among fire officials is the accumulation of 55-gallon drums. A fire in a Santa Fe Springs storage yard burned for hours in 1981 when hundreds of 55-gallon drums containing paint solvent caught fire. Kehret said fire officials “don’t want to see too many of those. When we see drums start to be accumulated, we’d like to keep tabs on it. It’s not only for our safety but for the residents as well.”

Kehret said he will also have someone inquire about several drums he saw stored in an open field. “It’s a relatively large area that is not used for anything else. Maybe they’re stored legally. Maybe they’re not. I’d like to go find out,” he said.

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Since the program is new, the information gathered from the flights has not been computerized, Wilson said. Both he and city officials will huddle after the fourth flight next month to decide whether to continue the program.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do yet,” Wilson said.

But he did say there is a need to keep tabs on 55-gallon drums. “If there is a buildup over a long period of time, it tells you there is a problem,” he said.


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