Debut of Toxics Census Sets Off Caustic Reaction

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Fire Department had a lot of explaining to do Thursday as hundreds of angry businessmen called to complain about the first step in a sweeping effort to create an inventory of all hazardous chemicals used by firms in the city.

Forms requesting a detailed list of hazardous chemicals and a $75 fee for a “certificate of disclosure” were sent to 47,200 businesses on Monday, said Norman Pate, an inspector for the city Fire Department Hazardous Materials Section.

By Thursday afternoon, two Fire Department telephone lines handling queries on the chemical disclosure program had received almost 2,000 calls from business people who were at least “perplexed” and, in many cases, indignant, Pate said.

Pate said their confusion was probably caused by what he said was imprecise wording on the application. He also said that the department’s mailing list of businesses that were “probable users” of hazardous substances was drawn up in a way that was bound to include some that do not.


Mandated by 2 Laws

The Fire Department is compiling the inventory to meet provisions of a state law and city ordinance, both passed in September, 1985, that call for the creation of detailed lists of hazardous chemicals in California communities and for individual businesses and local governments to draw up emergency management plans to deal with chemical fires and spills.

The state law, authored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), was prompted by the disastrous leak of deadly chemicals in Bhopal, India, on Dec. 4, 1984, that killed more than 2,000 people. The city ordinance, pushed by the late Councilman Howard Finn, came in the wake of a fire at a Sun Valley chemical warehouse.

Under the state law, businesses are required to provide local officials with a detailed inventory of hazardous chemicals and a plan for handling emergencies. The local officials--designated by county or city governments--are in turn required to compile a computerized inventory of hazardous materials stored or used by businesses and establish a plan of action in case of emergency.


Los Angeles and Burbank were among the 25 municipalities in Los Angeles County that chose to administer the law rather than let Los Angeles County do it. In Los Angeles, the City Fire Department was given the task of compiling the inventory.

Nature of Protests Told

Many of the business people who called the Fire Department after receiving applications complained that they were being required to pay a $75 fee and file complex paper work, even though their businesses handle no hazardous substances or just tiny amounts of such common substances as copy-machine toner or bathroom cleansers, Pate said.

Pate said that, with 265,000 businesses to screen, it was impossible to predict with accuracy which businesses should receive the application and which should not. “We tried to find the cleanest mailing list we could,” Pate said.


The mailing list was compiled using billing records of the Department of Water and Power that indicate the type of business. “We selected from the list of industry groups only those we felt would surely have materials present,” Pate said.

Business owners were also irked by language on the form that indicates that even tiny amounts of common chemicals must be accounted for, Pate said. One line reads: “All hazardous substances must be disclosed, regardless of the quantity handled by your business.”

One recipient of the application, Bob Borisoff, owner of Borisoff Engineering, a model shop and engineering firm in Van Nuys, said, “I’m not against the identification of hazardous products, but let’s restrict it to significant quantities. This is ridiculous.”

Borisoff said the only hazardous chemicals he has in his office are the liquid toner in his photocopier and chemicals in his medicine chest. “If I err on one bottle of iodine in my medicine chest, I’m on slippery ground,” he said.


Cy Rice, the owner of Threaded Fasteners, a Van Nuys-based distributor of nuts and bolts, was surprised to get the application and fee form because he has no hazardous chemicals on hand, he said. Like Borisoff, he said he was bothered by language on the form that indicated that virtually all businesses must file it and pay the fee.

Even the owner of a coin shop in Reseda received one of the certificate applications. Billie Johnivin, owner of California Coin and Stamp, said her reaction was “outrage.”

“The only hazardous chemicals I’ve got are the Drano and Ajax in the bathroom,” she said.

Bathroom Chemicals Count


She called one of the Fire Department telephone numbers listed on the application and was told that the bathroom chemicals count, she said. She was told that she would have to pay the $75 fee but that it might be refunded later. So she called the office of Joy Picus, her city councilwoman. “They didn’t know anything about the form until they received one, too.”

A spokeswoman in Picus’ Reseda office confirmed that an application was received on Tuesday and said that, “because we have no hazardous chemicals here,” it was returned to the city clerk’s office.

Pate said that Fire Department officials met with officials from the city attorney’s office Wednesday, after the first flurry of complaints had come in, to find out if it would be legal under the language of the city ordinance to waive the fee in the case of companies with no hazardous substances or with tiny amounts of common chemicals, such as household cleansers.

The decision, he said, was that these companies must still file the application for the certificate of disclosure, but that they need not include the $75 if they have no hazardous chemicals or such small amounts of common items that it is “reasonable” to say they have none at all.


“We don’t mean for the law to be reduced to absurdity,” Pate said.

‘Open for Inspections’

He warned, though, that businesses that report no chemicals “may open themselves up for inspections later and be subject to fines” if significant amounts of chemicals are found.

This year every company that uses hazardous materials will pay the same $75 fee, but next year a sliding scale is planned that will take into account the amount of chemicals used.


“It was expected that there would be confusion--people asking why are you doing it and why me?” said Councilwoman Picus, reached at her office in City Hall. She said that one goal of the ordinance is to reduce the growing confusion over hazardous-waste laws by “creating awareness among businesses of all sizes and types that substances they sell or make may be hazardous.”

A source in the data management unit of the Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Section, which is developing the computer inventory, said some of the rough spots in the program were caused by intense pressure to produce an inventory quickly.

“This is a massive, ambitious program,” said the employee, who requested anonymity. “The politicians were very anxious and proud to have this ordinance on the books and have it immediately. With all due respect, it takes time to plan something and do it right.”