Over the past 45 years, aircraft crews at Point Mugu Naval Air Station have generated tons of hazardous waste from the solvents, lubricants and other toxic fluids used to maintain their high-performance jets and helicopters.
Before Navy personnel learned proper disposal of toxic materials, much of the hazardous waste was tossed in the trash, poured down the drain and even dumped on vacant lots around the base.
But now the Naval Air Station, one of Ventura County's biggest producers of hazardous waste, has developed innovative controls on toxic materials that rival those of the most ecologically minded industries.
In its first year of operation, Point Mugu's Hazardous Material Minimization Project has reduced its toxic waste by nearly 75% and cut in half the money spent to order new toxic materials for aircraft maintenance.
"We're saving an awful lot of money we would have spent on new materials or paying to haul this crap away," said Capt. Paul J. Valovich, commanding officer of the Naval Air Station. "There's no downside to putting tight controls on hazardous materials. I wish we had done it sooner."
The project's success hinges on the simple idea of centralizing the distribution and collection of all toxic materials and closely monitoring each bottle or can as long as it is on base.
To perform such tasks, the base's maintenance officers turned an abandoned building into a central warehouse and instituted a rapid delivery and pickup service for all toxic materials used by aircraft mechanics.
"It is micro-management at its best," said Lt. Cmdr. Ed Payne, head of the project. "If a sailor only needs a couple of squirts of lubricant to do the job, that's all we give him. Then we take the bottle and put it back on the shelf."
Point Mugu's program has attracted attention throughout the Navy, and rarely a week goes by without the arrival of an envoy from another base to scrutinize its success, officials said.
Ventura County's environmental health officials also are pleased with the Navy's progress. "It sounds like an excellent system for accountability," said Terrence Gilday, the county's manager of hazardous and solid waste programs. Gilday said his staff has been working with Navy officials on the base.
To an outsider, centralizing all toxic materials would seem like an easy task on a base with one commanding officer. But in reality, the 42 aircraft at the Naval Air Station belong to a collection of "tenant commands," each with different missions and answering to different bosses in the Pentagon.
To bring toxic waste under control, Navy officials needed the voluntary cooperation of more than a dozen separate commands.
A year ago this month, Payne and Petty Officer 1st Class Ward Barnes came up with the concept as a way to meet the Navy's goal of reducing toxic waste by 50% by 1992.
They opened the center and began to collect stockpiles of hazardous materials squirreled away in metal lockers throughout the base.
At first, airplane mechanics were reluctant to give up their carefully cultivated caches of solvents, oils, lubricants and other supplies--materials they need for regular maintenance chores.
But Payne and his staff promised a rapid delivery of any hazardous material the mechanics needed. Using hand-held walkie-talkies and a driver, they made good on the promise.
"That's exactly what made it work," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard E. Simpson, who runs the warehouse filled with paints, hydraulic fluid, oils and other toxic supplies. "Guys were reluctant at first. Then it just snowballed."
During the year, the lower-ranked mechanics with some aircraft squadrons began doing business with the hazardous material center before their superior officers agreed to do so, Payne said. The mechanics found out that they could get supplies quicker that way.
Next month, the last holdouts--two aircraft squadrons--are scheduled to hand over their toxic supplies to the warehouse, which now has a crew of seven operating from 7:15 a.m. to midnight.
"We have about 20 major users on base," Payne said. "They tell us what they need and we deliver it anywhere on base in 15 or 20 minutes. It is a total departure of what the Navy has ever done."
Under the Navy's cumbersome supply system, a mechanic who needs supplies must fill out a requisition form in triplicate and wait for hours--and sometimes days or weeks--for delivery, officials said.
The ability to quickly order hazardous materials by phone has made the hazardous materials center popular among aircraft crews.
It has also dramatically reduced the amount of toxic materials purchased and stored on base. Under the old system, each squadron had to order its supplies separately, which led to tremendous waste, officials said.
"Take a can of spray paint," Valovich said. "You might need only a few squirts. But the way the Navy supply system worked, you would have to buy a whole case. And many times that case would be stored for years and years until someone got tired of it and threw it away."
Now, the warehouse staff keeps all toxic materials. The warehouse has been able to use up most of the supplies once held separately by the squadrons. And, with the help of a computer, the warehouse staff reorders materials when supplies get low. They now maintain an inventory of 334 toxic materials used by aviation maintenance crews.
Payne said he is now working on a special bar-code sticker to place on each bottle and can before it leaves the warehouse. The bar code would identify who was last responsible for the container should it be found discarded on the roadside or illegally in a dumpster.
"Twenty years ago, when I was an airman, I was one of the ones who threw this stuff down the drain because we didn't know any better," Payne said. "It wasn't against the law, then."
Now, he said, aircraft maintenance crew members using toxic materials are instructed in safe handling of such materials and the consequences of their improper disposal.
Penalties for illegal dumping of toxic waste can include fines up to $25,000 per incident per day, one year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge from the Navy, he said.
The hazardous materials center makes it easy for maintenance crews who can deliver their waste to the center or call to have it picked up. The center recycles as much as possible and then hands the rest over to a disposal firm.
Aviation maintenance crews bring in more hazardous materials than any other operation on the base, Payne said. "Now we are probably the smallest producers of hazardous waste."