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Tough Rules on Hazardous Waste Adopted by Council

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This city has courted industry for decades and is accustomed to the sights, sounds and smells of zinc plating, printing, metallurgy, adhesive manufacturing and oil refining. It has more than 3,000 businesses packed into nine square miles and a daytime work force that swells the population of 16,000 to more than 100,000 people.

But last month the industry-friendly city began looking for a way to say no to one of the state’s booming enterprises: treatment of hazardous waste.

In its May 24 meeting, the City Council unanimously adopted a customized plan to manage hazardous waste. The plan establishes a legal basis for turning away a company that stores or treats hazardous waste. As a result of the city’s action, such a treatment business will find it more difficult to prove its operation safe enough for Santa Fe Springs.

“We would hope that Santa Fe Springs would not become a giant treatment facility,” Mayor Al Sharp said.

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No one wants such treatment operations, certainly not people who must live near them or politicians who seek reelection. But the waste has to go somewhere, and Los Angeles County generates more of it than any county in the state. Although the vast majority of this waste is neutralized where it is produced, in 1986 alone about 430,000 tons had to be shipped to places as distant as Minnesota and Alabama.

This waste is not newspapers or aluminum cans, but toxic, infected, flammable and cancer-causing industrial and medical byproducts, such as solvents, asbestos, hospital wastes, oil and paint.

The risk of a toxic accident increases when the wastes are transported. And fewer regions are content to remain dumping grounds for poisons from Los Angeles. The Alabama Legislature, for instance, recently tried to bar the import of toxic waste from California, said Mike Mohajer, a specialist on hazardous wastes with the county Department of Public Works.

As of May 9, federal law bars ordinary landfills from accepting untreated hazardous waste.

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Increasingly, Los Angeles has to deal with its own waste. County officials estimate that may mean up to 15 additional treatment, incineration and storage facilities.

“All communities would like to keep them out,” Mayor Sharp said. “Unfortunately, that’s not even a realistic thought or approach.”

In 1986, the state passed legislation that allowed an appeals board to overturn a city’s decision to deny permits for recycling and treatment.

“This is the first legislation that, in essence, takes away control of land use from local government,” Mohajer said.

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Or, as Sharp put it: “Big Brother can come along and say, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ ”

Santa Fe Springs officials became particularly concerned after looking over a county map that they could only interpret as ominous. Shaded portions represent “general areas potentially suitable for . . . hazardous waste management facilities.”

Most of Santa Fe Springs qualifies. The reason for this is simple: Heavy manufacturing is zoned in 60% of the city. By contrast, about 8% of Whittier is zoned that way, and 2.7% of Pico Rivera.

So instead of adopting the county plan for managing waste, Santa Fe Springs devised and approved its own before a May 30 deadline. Many other cities have not taken that deadline seriously, but Santa Fe Springs officials believe they can’t afford to take chances.

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Leigh DeSantis, the city’s environmental manager, said her city’s customized plan differs from the county’s in key areas:

Any waste facility must be at least 1,000 feet from neighborhoods, schools, parks, hospitals and nursing homes. The county plan sets a distance for storage facilities but not treatment plants.

There is a larger safety zone between a treatment facility and a well or earthquake zone. In areas of shallow ground water, such facilities are forbidden.

The city can assume the operation is unsafe until the operator proves otherwise. DeSantis grants that this provision places a daunting burden of proof on applicants: “We would rather err on the side of protection. With a toxic substance, it can be 20 or 30 years before you can demonstrate what the negative effect is. It took 30 years to see how DDT got into the food chain.”

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The introduction of new hazardous wastes is limited. In Santa Fe Springs, “we don’t generate infectious waste to speak of,” DeSantis said, so “we would not be enthused about getting an infectious-waste incinerator. Given the volume and range of things already here, if we don’t generate it, we don’t want to treat it.”

Indeed, Santa Fe Springs has problems of its own, including two designated toxic dumps and a score of suspect plots left from a time when there was less control of toxic waste.

A 1989 study commissioned by the city showed that Santa Fe Springs generates more than 15,000 tons of hazardous waste per year. And county researchers found that in 1986, the only county cities that shipped out more hazardous waste annually than tiny Santa Fe Springs were Los Angeles, Long Beach, Torrance, El Segundo and Carson.

“If we can deal with what we have here already,” DeSantis said, “we’ve done our part.”

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In the view of Mohajer, the city’s bid to control the import of hazardous waste may fail as the state wearies of communities trying to keep out such facilities at all costs. He predicted that a court will decide the issue.


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