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O.C. Paint Firm Ordered to Pay Record Penalty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what regulators called the largest such fine ever imposed on a Southern California company, a Fullerton paint manufacturer was ordered by a federal judge Monday to pay $3 million in civil penalties for violating air-pollution laws.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had charged Vista Paint Corp. with violating the federal Clean Air Act for 578 consecutive days, claiming the company had manufactured and sold tens of thousands of gallons of pollution-causing paints.

The EPA estimated that the oil-based enamel paints, as they dried, released 176 tons of smog-producing chemicals in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties between December, 1985, and October, 1987.

Bill Glenn, an EPA spokesman in San Francisco, said outdoor painting accounts for 78 tons of pollutants every day in the Los Angeles basin and is a major cause of smog.

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Vista’s paint accounted for “the equivalent of more than two full days of what the entire region emits” from outdoor painting, he said.

Eddie R. Fischer, Vista’s president and owner, issued a statement Monday saying the company was “deeply distressed” about the fine ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Manuel L. Real.

“Vista substantially complied with EPA’s requests,” said Fischer, who declined an interview request. “Vista’s sales of high-quality paint did not adversely affect the health of any person.”

The EPA’s largest fine under the Clean Air Act is believed to be a $6-million penalty against a Chevron Corp. subsidiary in 1985 for sulfur dioxide emissions at an El Paso refinery.

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EPA officials said Vista had ignored repeated warnings to stop selling the oil-based paints.

“The size of this (penalty) had to do with the company’s flagrancy,” Glenn said.

By comparison, the largest penalty awarded to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the four-county agency in charge of cleaning up the air in the Los Angeles basin, was a $1-million judgment last year against Lockheed Aeronautical Systems Co. in Burbank for spray-painting violations.

The U.S. attorney’s office, representing the EPA, said chemicals found in the type of paint manufactured by Vista “are a primary cause of ozone formation or smog” that “can impair breathing and cause sore throats, chest pain and headaches.”

Vista’s oil-based enamel paints were primarily used on buildings and roadways. The company said it stopped selling the paints in question in October, 1987.

The company employs about 400 people at a manufacturing plant in Fullerton and at 14 retail stores in Orange and San Diego counties.

The company, in its statement, said it had paid a $500 fine to “local authorities” in 1988 “for the same conduct.”

Besides ignoring EPA warnings to stop selling the paint, Vista was also accused by the agency of refusing to turn over company documents.

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“Vista (said it) would continue such sales even if it had to pay a reasonable fine for doing so,” the U.S. attorney claims in a written statement.

Because of the EPA warnings, Real imposed two levels of penalties. He ordered the company to pay $1,000 a day for violations that occurred prior to the EPA notices and $12,500 a day for later violations. Real also ordered the company to pay $1,000 a day for failing to honor EPA requests for company documents.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Peter Hsiao said the company never did turn over the paper work and has been fined accordingly for the 1,177 days on which it failed to comply.

Federal law prohibits the sale of any oil-based paint with more than 250 grams per liter of so-called “volatile organic compounds.”

Vista paints, Hsiao said, contained up to 381 grams per liter of those compounds, which include isopropyl alcohol and methyl ethyl ketone. Vista and other paint manufacturers opposed an AQMD proposal last year to reformulate oil-based paints. The regulations were approved on a 7-2 vote.


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