Citizens Panel to Study Toxic-Waste Project

Times Staff Writer

The City Council has appointed a citizens committee that will play a major role in deciding whether to allow an expansion by a hazardous-waste disposal company that botched the city’s toxic-waste roundup last summer.

Review by the committee is a new requirement under the Tanner Act, a state law regulating the handling of hazardous wastes. The law calls for the appointment of a seven-member Local Assessment Committee each time a hazardous-waste project is proposed.

‘Pressing Need’

City Manager Thomas G. Mauk said there was “a pressing need” to form such a committee this month to review Omega Recovery Service’s application for expansion, which will reach the city sometime next month.

Omega’s principal business is recycling about 2 million pounds of air-conditioning coolants each year, although the company also recycles some paint wastes and other chemicals, said President Dennis O’Meara.

The expansion plans call for Omega to double its one-acre facility near the intersection of Whittier and Washington boulevards. The expansion would add a storage area to the plant, which O’Meara said is the nation’s only recycling facility for air-conditioning wastes. Because the state classifies such businesses under the general category of waste disposal, the rarity of air-conditioning recycling plants could not be confirmed by state officials.

“The state needs this facility,” O’Meara said, particularly in light of legislation being studied by state lawmakers that would require more waste to be recycled.

Terms to Be Negotiated

The terms of Omega’s proposed expansion will be negotiated with the local committee, said Jim Marxen, a spokesman for the toxics division of the state Department of Health Services. If there is disagreement, the state can appoint a mediator, he said. The City Council would consider the project only if a special operating permit is required.

This week, the council appointed these Whittier residents as committee members:

William Krenz, a retiree who has worked in the engineering field; James McKenna, an environmental engineer; Richard Plute, who works in hazardous waste transportation; Joe Holiday, a petroleum development geologist; Bill Lenihan, a commercial and industrial real estate sales and leasing agent; Kendrick Eilar, a chemical engineering environmental consultant, and William McCracken, a chemist.

Marxen added that Omega’s handling of Whittier’s toxic-waste roundup will not affect the state’s consideration of the expansion. In June, Whittier paid Omega $60,000 to supervise its first roundup, in which residents dropped off chemicals such as weed killer and old paint at the maintenance yard on Painter Avenue for legal disposal. During the roundup, O’Meara created a small toxic cloud by mixing several types of potent acid in a 55-gallon drum.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department temporarily sealed off the area until the cloud dissipated. O’Meara, who was not wearing the proper protective clothing, was treated at a hospital for burns on his face and arms.

Mishap Not Related

City Manager Mauk said the mishap will not affect Omega’s expansion plans. The committee will undertake a “scientific analysis of material (Omega) handles and equipment they use,” Mauk said. “I think the fact that the guy is out pouring paint in a drum when he’s not supposed to signifies one thing. His processing plant is far more important.”

The state Department of Health Services cited Whittier for failing to report the accident within 60 days and threatened to fine the city $30,000. Whittier officials maintained Omega was responsible for the mishap, though the city fired Tom Bayles, assistant public services director for hazardous-waste disposal, after the citation was reported in news accounts.

The state dropped its threat to fine the city after Whittier officials warned that they would refuse to have more roundups. In an out-of-court settlement, the city agreed to provide extra training to employees involved in hazardous-waste disposal and to make presentations to other cities in the Los Angeles area about the correct way to run a toxic-waste roundup.

"(Omega) wasn’t officially found to be at fault in that incident,” Marxen said. “Also, it didn’t occur at their facility.”

Marxen said Omega’s inspection record is fairly good, showing 11 citations in 1986 and 1987 for such things as mislabeling storage drums and improper aisle space.