Defendant in Chemical Storage Trial Blames Landlord, EPA
Marianne Pratter, former owner of a Sun Valley chemical company, testified Thursday that a landlord and federal officials prevented her from disposing of hazardous chemicals left behind when a fire destroyed her company plant in 1985.
Pratter, president of Research Organic and Inorganic Chemical Co., has pleaded not guilty to charges she failed to remove several containers of dangerous materials from the building after a fire April 14, 1985. Fifty-six people suffered minor injuries from chemical fumes released by the blaze.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Charney has said that between April and August, 1985, when the district attorney began investigating, Pratter illegally stored toxic, flammable and reactive chemicals, a violation of the state Health and Safety Code. Charges were filed against her in April, 1986.
Pratter testified in San Fernando Superior Court that shortly after the fire, she made arrangements with a hauling company to remove the dangerous materials, but was barred from entering the property at 9068 De Garmo Ave. by an official from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which handled the fire cleanup.
“I was going to have the materials picked up by a company on April 15,” she testified. “We were going to put them in a special chemical storage warehouse.”
Health officials testified earlier that Pratter had ignored orders to remove the dangerous materials.
Pratter testified that between April 15 and April 29 she met daily with EPA officials in an alley by the building and supplied them with information about the chemicals stored on the premises but was prevented from setting foot on the property.
Charney said after court Thursday that the EPA barred Pratter from the property for only 2 weeks while the agency was supervising the cleanup.
Pratter told the jury that when she tried to enter her business April 30, the locks had been changed and containers of chemicals had been moved around.
“It looked completely different,” she testified. “It was a shambles.”
She tried again to gain access in July, but the property owner ordered her out and locked all the doors, she testified.
“He physically forced me out,” Pratter said of the owner, Juan Company.
She said she hired a trucking firm to dispose of the materials that day but when they began loading the containers, Company forced them to unload.
“He said to leave everything where it is and whatever was in the property belongs to him,” she testified.
Despite repeated phone calls to Company, Pratter testified, she was not allowed back on the property until Dec. 5, 1985. The last of the chemicals was removed that month.
Company has testified that he never prevented Pratter from entering the building and, in fact, tried to reach her by telephone to urge her to pick up the chemicals so he could lease the building to someone else, Charney said.
Pratter testified that she had worked in the chemical distribution business since 1963 and had moved into the De Garmo Avenue location in 1979. She told the jury that she was licensed to generate hazardous waste and had obtained all the permits necessary to handle hazardous chemicals from local and state health agencies and the EPA.
Pratter, who is free on $10,000 bail, will resume her testimony today. If convicted, she faces a 3-year prison sentence and a $50,000 fine, Charney said.
Pratter also owned a chemical distribution firm in New Jersey where a 1983 toxic-gas leak resulted in a $1-million cleanup effort by the state. She pleaded guilty in 1984 to charges of reckless storage of hazardous materials and creating a risk of widespread injury, and was sentenced to 3 years probation, 5 months of community service and ordered to pay $15,000.