When he saw an advertisement inviting his former employees to help the U.S. government nail his company for environmental pollution, Bill Donahoe, owner of a truck-washing business, was astounded.
"I wondered what country I was living in," Donahoe said. Surely, the United States of America would not solicit anonymous gossip from disgruntled ex-employees.
But there it was, an ad in English in the Los Angeles Times and in Spanish in La Opinion that listed 51 companies topped by the headline: "Ever worked here?" The ad invited those who had worked for the companies to ask themselves whether they had handled hazardous chemicals and waste and whether the waste was taken to the Operating Industries Inc. (OII) landfill in Monterey Park.
"Please call us!" the ad urged. "Your information can help us at this hazardous waste site." The ad included a toll-free telephone number and the address of the EPA regional office in San Francisco.
Ads Not Unusual
Terry Wilson, spokesman for EPA's western region, said the EPA did nothing more than take the sort of action that attorneys routinely take when they place classified ads seeking witnesses to their clients' traffic accidents.
All of the information received by the agency will be carefully checked by investigators, he said, as part of an effort to put together a civil case against companies that shipped hazardous waste to the Monterey Park dump.
The EPA has reached an agreement with more than 100 companies to help pay for the initial phases of the toxic cleanup of the OII site by contributing $33 million in cash and $34 million in work. But no settlement has been reached with more than 50 other companies that are believed by the EPA to have shipped hazardous waste to the dump before it was closed because of environmental problems in 1984.
The settlements reached so far are only for the initial stages of the cleanup effort. The EPA will seek additional payments to continue the cleanup, which could eventually cost $200 million to $300 million.
Wilson said the EPA spent $50,000 on the ads, which ran every other day for two weeks in The Times and La Opinion. He said the ads were a new tactic, never before used by the EPA in any of its regions.
The tactic was used in this case, he said, because the agency needs more information about waste shipments to OII. Some of the targeted companies claim that their waste was not hazardous, but lack documents to support that claim, he said.
Wilson refused to say how many calls had been elicited but said: "We had a very good response--better than expected."
He said he also "heard from a couple of senior vice presidents who were very agitated," about their companies being named in the ad. Wilson said the agency had no qualms about listing the companies because they have been identified in public records as potentially responsible for cleaning up the OII site.
Donahoe said the EPA ad was an open invitation for anyone with a grievance to take revenge. "Every company has probably got an employee who is (mad) at them," he said. Besides, he added, "there are a lot of just plain disgruntled people out there."
Roy Leach, owner of Leach Oil Co. in Compton, said the EPA used a "very low-life tactic," giving his company and others named in the ad a black eye by implying that they were in trouble with the EPA for wrongdoing.
Actually, his company, an oil recycler, did no more than send waste to a dump that was licensed by government agencies to receive it, he said.
"What we took out there, we took legally," Leach said. "It was just waste water."
Under federal law, companies that produce hazardous waste are liable for it even after they have legally disposed of it. Thus, the EPA is trying to identify all of the companies that shipped hazardous waste to the Monterey Park dump and force them to share in the cleanup.
Donahoe, who owns Vernon Truck Wash, which has 100 employees, said the government has asked his company to pay $296,000. Leach said the EPA has demanded $500,000 from his small business, which has only six employees.
"They're trying to squeeze blood out of a rock," Leach said. "We don't have it to give them."
EPA records show that Leach's company is responsible for 692,000 gallons of hazardous waste at OII, ranking it 46th in volume on a list of 182 companies that shipped a total of 182 million gallons of hazardous waste to the site.
Leach said his company disposed of a slightly caustic solution of waste water condensed from steam created during the process of recycling used motor oil into fuel.
EPA records rank Vernon Truck Wash 65th on the list of hazardous waste shippers, with 470,000 gallons. Donahoe said his company sent mud and sludge washed from trucks. "We have documentation proving that what we disposed of was not hazardous waste," he said.
The largest volume--more than 14 million gallons--came from Chevron USA, which has agreed to participate in a consortium of 60 companies that will undertake $34 million worth of monitoring and cleanup work at the OII site under EPA supervision. The consortium also will pay $1.9 million cash.
Other companies, including the Times Mirror Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, have agreed to pay cash amounts totaling $31 million. The largest cash amounts are $4.9 million from Exxon Corp., $5.7 million from the American National Can Co. and $5.9 million from the Atlantic Richfield Co.
A number of companies that have not settled with EPA are major firms, such as Continental Airlines and Union Pacific Railroad, but others are quite small. Leach said the government should give special consideration to companies that face financial ruin if they are forced to share in the cost of cleaning up a toxic waste problem that arose through no fault of their own.
"They've got to work with the little guys, instead of stomping us like flies," Leach said.
Both Leach and Donahoe said they expect their companies to be sued by EPA over the OII cleanup costs.
Officials at EPA said they are working toward legal action against a number of companies, but cannot say when a suit might be filed.