Aiming to get better compliance with a state hazardous chemical law, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday gave the Fire Department authority to shut down businesses that do not provide a detailed list of what dangerous materials are stored on their premises.
A state law requiring businesses to inform fire departments of the types, amounts and locations of hazardous chemicals they use went into effect on Jan. 1, 1988. Under the law, companies that have not complied face potential fines of $5,000 for every day that their lists are not submitted.
Under the measure approved by the City Council, the fire chief will have the authority to close down non-complying companies. Mayor Tom Bradley said shortly after the council vote that he will sign the measure into law.
However, city officials conceded that they would rather get cooperation than force a business to close.
‘See the Light’
“I’m sure with the threat of forced closure these companies will see the light,” said Councilwoman Gloria Molina, who proposed the measure. “I don’t want to close anyone down. I just want to make this city a safer place to live.”
City fire officials, who supported the measure, said they intend to use the closure powers only as a tool of last resort. Nonetheless, “it would be a foolish company that would want to test us,” city Fire Marshall Craig Drummond said.
The Fire Department, like other local fire authorities around the state, so far has been reluctant to enforce the letter of the law. No fines have been issued in Los Angeles, and the city has taken no legal action against any companies, Drummond said.
While many companies are still late in reporting, Drummond said there are no cases of “flagrant disobedience.” Much of the problem, he said, is in educating companies about the law and the chemicals they use.
The city itself had problems in carrying out the law. For months after the reporting law took effect, fire officials conceded that their record-keeping was riddled with errors and they were unable to record the plans as quickly as they were submitted. Thousands of plans were simply kept in stacks, as workers attempted to get them filed onto department computers.
Other cities and counties throughout the state were having similar problems, according to a 1988 study by the Assembly Office of Research.
But in recent months, the Los Angeles Fire Department has cut the list of non-complying companies to just a few hundred, according to Drummond. He estimated that 95% of the estimated 8,000 companies storing hazardous materials in the city have complied with reporting requirements and those reports are on the department’s computers.
The intent of the state law was to provide firefighters with vital information about what types of hazardous materials they might encounter in battling blazes at stores, warehouses and factories.
The push to get tough with late filers in Los Angeles began last May, when a fire broke out at a Lincoln Heights hardware company that stored dangerous chemicals.
More than 11,000 residents near the blaze at Builders Hardware Finishers had to be evacuated. The company was one of hundreds that had not filed a plan with fire authorities. Residents complained that they had not been notified of the chemicals at the site.
Molina then filed a series of motions to tighten enforcement and improve dissemination of the business plans.