An Anaheim auto-shredding firm, where a potentially toxic fire forced the evacuation of about 200 people Sunday night, is a major public health threat and should be closed, two Anaheim city councilmen charged Monday.
Meanwhile, city officials were investigating reports that a sprinkler system installed at the plant, Orange County Steel Salvage Inc., to prevent the type of fire that erupted Sunday night was not functioning.
"The system was designed to keep water on the pile (of shredded auto waste) to prevent sparks and smoldering from the shredding operations," Anaheim spokeswoman Sheri Erlewine said. "The (city's) code enforcement department is investigating comments made by some salvage employees that the sprinklers were partly malfunctioning."
The blaze, which broke out about 7:30 p.m., sent flames shooting four stories high. It was brought under control by about 9 p.m., but continued to smolder in the mounds of highly flammable auto shredder waste.
By Monday morning, city authorities were inspecting the site in an effort to determine the cause of the blaze. The firm's owner, George Adams Jr., said it may have been sparked by welding work done on cars brought in for salvage the day before.
State and county health officials also went to the site Monday to determine if the fire had spread contamination from a huge pile of auto shredder residue that has been found to to contain toxic levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a suspected cancer-causing substance.
The California Regional Water Quality Control Board took samples from the nearby Santa Ana River, while county sanitation crews checked water runoff in sewers for contamination. In addition, air samples were taken to determine if toxic fumes had been released.
Fear that the fire in the contaminated mound of waste would produce a cloud of toxic fumes had prompted Anaheim firefighters to order the evacuation of about 200 people from an apartment complex for the disabled, as well as a hotel and another apartment building near the plant at 3200 E. Frontera St.
Evacuees were allowed to return to their homes later Sunday night, and city and state health officials said there appeared to be no immediate health threat from the fire.
But at a press conference Monday morning, Anaheim City Councilmen Fred Hunter and Bill Ehrle charged that conditions at the site posed a "major health hazard." They said they will ask the City Council to revoke the firm's operating permit.
'Time to Do Something'
"It's time to quit talking about the problem and do something," Hunter said. "I don't really care who is to blame. I'm just worried about what might happen next."
"I want action now," Ehrle said, "because I don't want to, after the fact, say, 'I told you so' when we have to call a state of emergency."
Adams has been battling city, county and state officials for more than two years over removal of the mound of contaminated auto waste.
His firm also has a long history of city and state code violations and was forced to close its shredding operation in March, when the state accused it of violating an agreement barring stockpiling of newly shredded waste at the site, instead of hauling it away for disposal within 10 days.
The company resumed operations in September, after Adams installed a treatment system that binds heavy metal particles to the shredded fibers of auto carpet, vinyl seats and plastic parts, preventing any leaching of the metals into the ground. That treatment process renders the waste acceptable for dumping in county-operated landfills.
The company was held in contempt of court last November and fined $2,000 for stockpiling the shredded wastes in violation of the court order. It was also cited twice in December for illegal disposal of wastewater into storm drains and gutters, city officials said.
Adams to Attend Meeting
Adams said he will attend today's City Council meeting, where Hunter and Ehrle are expected to ask for the revocation of his operating permit.
"I'm hoping that when somebody gets all the facts, the City Council will decide not to revoke it," Adams said. "While the pile was getting bigger, they had a legitimate complaint. But we stopped that. The fire last night wasn't in the (contaminated) pile. Even if it had not been there, you would have had the same problem."
Adams said it had been years since shredding operations sparked a fire. But city officials said there have been at least four or five fires at the site, the most recent being last year.
Meanwhile, State health officials said Monday that they may require Adams to speed up plans for cleaning up the site.
Cleanup costs have been estimated at $18 million to $26 million. Deputy Atty. Gen. Don Robinson said the state has set aside $18 million from its Hazardous Substance Bond Fund for the cleanup. But unless there is a threat of imminent danger to the public health, the state cannot begin to spend the money until Adams is given a chance to resolve the problem, he said.