Countywide : County Pushes Suit Over Asphalt Spill

The Board of Supervisors voted this week to move ahead with a lawsuit seeking $70,000 from a Garden Grove paving company that officials say has refused to pay cleanup costs for a 1990 liquid asphalt spill that threatened the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

The board voted unanimously to file suit against Seal Black Co. Inc. to recover costs incurred while combatting the 5,000-gallon spill of thick, oily asphalt sealer that tainted two miles of a flood-control channel in July, 1990, threatening the fragile wetlands downstream.

Deputy County Counsel Nicholas S. Chrisos said the lawsuit would be filed by Monday.

William Green, co-owner of Seal Black Co., declined comment Wednesday.

The spill was started mysteriously in the night, apparently by vandals. The valves on five asphalt tanks were opened, allowing about 10,000 gallons of a mixture of an emulsifier and asphalt slurry to pour out. Officials estimate about half of that noxious flow penetrated the nearby East Garden Grove-Wintersburg Channel.

While the county is pressing to recover its costs for cleaning up the spill, a state agency last week abandoned its attempt to recoup cleanup costs. The Santa Ana Regional Water Control Board decided behind closed doors last Friday not to hold Seal Black Co. responsible for the $200,000 pulled from a state emergency fund.

Citing the company's inability to control the actions of criminals and the damage the large debt would wreck on the family-owned business, the water board "basically decided to drop the matter," said Kurt Berchtold the board's assistant executive officer.

Seal Black Co. initially paid $25,000 toward the cleanup effort, but then refused to help further when its insurance carrier would not cover the costs, officials said.

Berchtold said the water board's decision was based on a different set of financial considerations than the county's because the $200,000 came from a 20-year-old special fund designed to pay the costs of water pollution cleanup. That fund has "an ample amount of money" generated by industrial fines, Berchtold said.

"So not seeking payment is not going to put that account in jeopardy or limit our ability to respond to future incidents," said Berchtold. "For us, it's a done deal."

The county contributed $50,000 toward the two-week cleanup effort by contractors, which included vacuuming the channel, power-washing it with detergents, and hastily erecting earthen dikes to halt the oozing spread of the sealer to sensitive areas. The dams were built in time to halt the toxic flow from reaching a fragile bird sanctuary downstream.

Chris Crompton, manager of the county's Environmental Resource Division, said the county is seeking an additional $20,000 to cover the costs of both staffing and public works emergency response charges.

Crompton said follow-up monitoring showed no lasting effects of the spill.

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