His lawyer paints him as simply "an unsophisticated auto repairman (who) was unaware of all the ramifications of the law."
But the San Diego County district attorney's office sees him as a criminal.
Mike Breining has been operating a Mercedes-Benz repair shop and classic auto restoration business at his home on a rural Fallbrook hilltop for more than two decades, and had been dumping used motor oil in sump holes on his 12-acre property.
Such dumping became illegal with passage of state environmental protection laws in 1986, which made Breining and thousands of other small repair shop owners into toxic polluters.
When county hazardous waste inspectors appeared at his property about two years ago, tipped off by an anonymous informant, Breining learned that he would have to clean up the decades-old oil dump in his back yard.
Breining, 60, admits he may have been a little casual about disposing the estimated 20,000 gallons of oil and a bit irresponsible about boning up on the quagmire of environmental regulations that apply to his small home-based auto repair shop.
Last January, he began the expensive process of cleaning up the waste. But in April, the investigators visited him again, this time accompanied by police. Authorities told him the informant made another complaint accusing Breining of having even more oil dumped on his property than was first reported.
By June, Breining found out in a letter from a deputy district attorney that he had been the subject of a criminal investigation and faced prosecution on several felony charges and dozens of misdemeanors that "could have put me in jail for three years and mean a $100,000 fine," Breining said.
Stunned, Breining couldn't understand why he was being prosecuted as a criminal, a toxic polluter, for doing something that once was legal.
As it turns out, Breining was being made into an example for others to heed.
"He knew it was wrong," said Jim Pitts, the deputy district attorney who filed charges against Breining. "He thought he would never get caught, but he did."
Normally, the district attorney's office would not publicize a minor case such as Breining's, but spokeswoman Linda Miller explained that "we want to get the word out that we are proceeding against polluters."
The mechanic pleaded "no contest" on Dec. 12 to a single misdemeanor count of illegal disposal of hazardous waste. In the negotiated plea bargain, Breining was fined $9,000, ordered to pay $6,940.20 to cover the county's cost of the investigation against him, and required to perform 250 hours of community service.
Pitts is pleased with the outcome. It is the district attorney's first criminal prosecution of an auto repair shop owner and demonstrates that authorities aren't going to look the other way at environmental crime, he said.
He'll prosecute, he said, "whenever the Department of Health Services brings me the proper information."
Pitts estimates that Breining could have dumped up to 20,000 gallons of oil in his hilltop holes, based on more than 20 years of dumping and estimates from Breining's former employees that 20 to 40 gallons of oil were dumped weekly.
"My remaining concern is site mitigation, that it is done properly," Pitts said. "So far he's done everything that he's asked to do. My one fear is he could go bankrupt before it (the cleanup) is completed."
Breining said he's removing the environmental mess at a cost of "$50,000 and the bills are still coming in."
He has about 400 cubic yards of "contaminated materials" awaiting "bio-remediation," which is the treatment of the oil-soaked dirt on the site. Otherwise it must be hauled away to a licensed toxic waste dump.
He's hoping to obtain permission from the state Department of Health Services and the Water Quality Control Board to treat the soil on-site--a much less expensive procedure than shipping it to a far-distant licensed disposal site.
"It's 350 bucks a cubic yard to haul this stuff away and that's another $125,000," Breining said glumly.
For Breining's 250 hours of community service, Pitts prefers that he teach auto mechanics at Fallbrook High School without salary. Barring that, Pitts specified that Breining work out his time with a nonprofit organization approved by the court.
Breining has a better idea. He's a Baja buff and bilingual so he proposed that he be allowed to serve his time going around to all the other little auto repair shops and teaching the employees the proper way to handle and dispose of waste motor oil.
"I'm an expert on the subject," Breining said of his painful education in environmental law and hazardous materials disposal, "and it might help other little guys like me from going through this whole nightmare."