Manufacturer Loses Permit, Faces New Inquiry for Dumping Waste Into Sewers

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles sanitation crews this week began monitoring a sewer line used by a Harbor Gateway furniture manufacturing company to determine if the firm is continuing to discharge illegal amounts of hazardous material into city sewers.

The Los Angeles Board of Public Works on Monday revoked the company's permit to discharge waste from its chrome- and nickel-plating operations after city sanitation inspectors reported dozens of violations detected in November and December involving the illegal emission of acid, nickel and a cancer-causing form of chromium.

Virco Manufacturing Corp., headed by Rolling Hills industrialist and prominent Republican fund-raiser Julian Virtue, is also being investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution.

Deputy Dist. Atty. William Carter said that the case involves "fairly serious violations," but he would not comment further. "We are still waiting for some reports," he said. "We have not finished reviewing the case."

Norman Cotter, chief industrial waste inspector for the city, described the violations as among the most serious ever uncovered by his inspectors. He said that nine of the 38 violations are potential felonies under state law. A felony violation of the California Health and Safety Code can bring a maximum prison sentence of three years and a $100,000-per-day fine for as long as the violation occurs, Carter said.

Virtue, chief executive officer of the company, did not return phone calls. An attorney, Joel Moskowitz, said he has advised company officials not to comment on the accusations because of the district attorney's investigation.

"This is not the time to be admitting or denying anything," Moskowitz said.

A city-county strike force--consisting of sanitation and health inspectors, police and representatives of the district attorney--raided the firm Dec. 8 after obtaining a search warrant. Cotter said that city crews had been secretly monitoring a sewer connection outside the company after a routine inspection on Oct. 29 revealed a series of problems. The company discharges about 180,000 gallons of water a day into the sewers.

The strike force confiscated logs and other Virco records, which Cotter said clearly show that the firm was aware that it was violating the law. "We confiscated records that detail they were discharging more than allowed," he said. "They knew that they were bypassing a treatment center."

Cotter would not say who was responsible for the records or who might have known about the illegal discharges. A copy of some log entries were included in documents presented to the Board of Public Works. One entry, written June 13, said:

"I cleaned the tank and pits today--it is obvious we are passing too much untreated chrome. . ."

Another entry, written Oct. 9, said:

"Too much chrome. Did everything I could. Just to (sic) much chrome no matter how much I mess with the reduction pit."

And on Oct. 26, an entry said:

"To (sic) much chrome. I did everything in my power to stop chrome. Pure chrome coming down main line every 5 minutes our (sic) so. . . . I hope first shift has a better time than I did. . ."

On Monday, the public works board, which oversees sanitation issues in the city, revoked the discharge permit for plating and ordered round-the-clock monitoring for one week of the company's other waste discharges. The board said it will review the company's other discharge permit--which covers painting and other non-plating operations at the factory--next week after it receives a report based on the current monitoring. City officials said they believe that the plating operations were responsible for the hazardous waste discharges.

In an appearance before the board, Moskowitz said that Virco hired a consulting firm to help clean up its problems when it was notified of the violations during the December raid. The lawyer said the company closed its plating operations a week later, and has since removed the plating equipment from the Vermont Avenue factory.

"Virco is not in the plating business any more," Moskowitz said.

He pleaded with the board not to revoke the second discharge permit, saying that it would effectively put the firm out of business. He assured the board that the violations stemmed only from the discontinued plating operations. Virco employees about 500 people.

Cotter, the chief inspector, said it is not known how dangerous the hazardous waste discharges were, although he said that acid dumped into sewers always poses a risk of its mixing with other chemicals and creating dangerous situations for city sewer workers.

"Acid is very hard on the sewer system," he said. "You could burn sewer maintenance workers."

Virtue, who has assisted in various Republican electoral races in the South Bay, is most notably tied to Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana. He served as one of Dana's campaign chairmen in 1984, and state campaign records show that he has been one of Dana's top contributors, giving $36,300 to his campaigns between 1980 and 1986.

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