Poisoned Past : Metal Waste Contaminates Site of Closed Pottery Factory in Manhattan Beach

Times Staff Writer

Back in the days when Manhattan Beach was swimming in surfers’ “Woodies” rather than stockbrokers’ Porsches, the seaside community was recognized as a hub of the pottery industry.

On a three-acre site, Metlox Potteries hummed with activity, its kilns firing teddy bear cookie jars, milk cow creamers and ivy-patterned plate ware for shipment across the nation.

Last week, Metlox, the last of the big, old-time California colored pottery manufacturers, finally shut its doors after 62 years in business. But the passing of the financially ailing firm left more than simple memories of a bygone era. It also left an open sore in the heart of the city, just three blocks from the Pacific shore where an unimproved residential lot that is little larger than a tennis court can fetch $1 million.


The problem, county Health Department officials say, is that lead and other dangerous heavy metals that were byproducts of the pottery-making process had been dumped for years into a 60-by-40-foot open-air pit on the plant property at Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Valley Drive. With Metlox out of business and the extent of the contamination unclear, officials say it could take at least two years for the mess to be cleaned up.

Moreover, they say, an investigation is under way to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against officials of Metlox, which leased the property from the Santa Fe Railway Co. and a Manhattan Beach development firm.

“We’re investigating the possibility of referring criminal charges to the district attorney’s office (concerning) the illegal storage of hazardous waste,” said Bill Jones, chief of investigations for the county’s hazardous materials control program.

A study of the clay-covered open pit, conducted after the problem was disclosed in 1987, revealed lead readings ranging from 15 parts per million to 118,000 p.p.m. Readings above 1,000 p.p.m. are deemed hazardous, according to county health officials.

Jones said that the owners of the two affected property parcels--the Santa Fe Railway and the Manhattan Pavilion development firm--have each hired consultants to determine the extent of the lead, cadmium and zinc pollution. Once the studies are completed, health officials can better estimate the cost and scope of a cleanup.

Jones said that the contaminants in the pit, which is covered in a seemingly makeshift manner by plastic sheeting held in place with bricks and wood, do not appear to pose a health hazard to nearby residents or pedestrians.

“The biggest concern would be from dust carrying the lead, but all the dust you see around there is clay,” Jones said. “The concern is the glaze containing the lead . . . and the glaze isn’t blowing around.”

City officials say they are satisfied with the county’s conclusion.

“It’s not some rocket science mixture there, it’s lead from ceramic glaze,” City Councilman C.R. (Bob) Holmes said. “I don’t think this will push the envelope on the state of the art” of toxic cleanups.

On the other hand, Holmes said, officials are disturbed that the ceramics firm left behind such a headache.

‘Sour Note’

“It’s the end of an era but it’s a shame it had to end on such a sour note,” the councilman said. “The Metlox people acted in bad faith and made no attempt to clean up the problem they created for many years. But now that they are out of the property, the Santa Fe and David Arias (general partner of Manhattan Pavilion), I believe, will attempt to very expeditiously clean up the site.”

With commercial land valued at $60 to $100 a square foot in the center of Manhattan Beach, Holmes added, “Obviously, the landowners have a tremendous incentive to see the process expedited.”

Arias, whose property is zoned for commercial or residential use, heartily agrees.

“We are now taking stock as to what exactly needs to be removed,” he said. “We hope to proceed with our development plan in the very near future.”

If neither Metlox officials nor the property owners were willing to pay the cleanup costs, county officials say, the plant would have to be placed on a state or federal “Superfund” cleanup list. In that case, they say, cleanup of the metals might not be accomplished for several years.

Flourished in 1930s

“If they plan to build something like housing or apartments, the extent to which they perform the cleanup would be more rigorous as opposed to having a blacktop parking lot over certain portions,” Jones said.

Metlox, founded in 1927, was the last survivor of the five major California colored pottery manufacturers that flourished in Los Angeles during the 1930s. Early Metlox pieces, along with those of the Bauer, Franciscan, Vernon and Pacific pottery companies, are valued collectibles, according to Buddy Wilson, who runs a Melrose Avenue pottery shop.

Over the years, Metlox’s fortunes wavered. In good times, the success of its Poppytrail dinnerware line ensured employment for more than 300 workers. But in recent years, Metlox frequently faced legal run-ins for the hiring of illegal aliens.

Two years ago, the company filed federal Chapter 11 bankruptcy papers in order to reorganize its business debts. Last month, the filing was switched to Chapter 7 bankruptcy so Metlox could liquidate its remaining assets.

Purchase Agreement

Metlox President Melinda Avery and her husband, Kenneth, the former president of the firm, could not be reached for comment. Encino attorney David S. Hagen, who represented Metlox in bankruptcy proceedings, refused comment.

Meanwhile, former Metlox General Manager Brandon MacNeal said his firm, Original California Pottery Corp. of Santa Monica, has entered an agreement with Metlox to purchase remaining pottery and equipment in order to keep several Metlox designs in production.

“It’s still in the planning stages where we will produce it,” MacNeal said. “We’re looking at a couple of different options.”

Councilman Holmes said the episode is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga of changing times in the South Bay city.

“I’d love it to be a sleepy little town where everyone walked around in shorts instead of $150 jogging suits,” he said. “I’d like to see ‘Woodies’ instead of BMWs.

“We’d all like to see no changes take place. But that’s not life and free enterprise.”