Company Accused of Breaking Toxics Law : Environment: Group plans to sue Halaco, long part of controversy over Ormond Beach wetlands, for allegedly failing to report use of chemicals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Oxnard scrap-metal recycling firm that has long been the target of environmentalists and health agencies has violated a federal law requiring the firm to report its use of toxic chemicals, an environmental group alleges.

Halaco Engineering Co. has allegedly failed for several years to file reports with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detailing the nature and amount of certain chemicals released into the air, water or ground, according to San Francisco-based Citizens for a Better Environment.

Acting on a tip from a neighbor of the Oxnard smelting plant, the environmental group reviewed Halaco's toxic emissions as reported to the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

Based on its findings, the group has officially announced its intention to sue Halaco to force it to comply with the federal law.

"We had scientists do a fair amount of research and it turns out they are one of the worst toxic-chemical generators in Ventura County," said Richard Drury, an attorney for the environmental group.

"We're not talking about spotted owls or some distant effect on the ozone layer," Drury added. "We are talking about chemicals with real human health impacts, and they have kept their neighbors in the dark."

Halaco officials say the charges are groundless, and that the 60-day notice of intention to sue, filed with the EPA in April, is deficient and should be discarded.

"The notice is nothing but an unsubstantiated, uninformative, unenlightening charge of wrongdoing unencumbered by any facts," wrote Halaco attorney Arthur Fine in a letter to the EPA. Fine could not be reached Friday for further comment.

The case, believed to be the first of its kind in Ventura County, comes after years of controversy over whether Halaco's plant endangers ecologically sensitive wetlands at Ormond Beach.

And it comes at a time when the recycling firm is cutting back its operation and reducing its work force, partly the result, company officials say, of burdensome environmental regulations.

One little-publicized regulation is the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, a federal law requiring companies that use more than 10,000 pounds per year of any of 300 toxic chemicals to disclose that usage annually to the EPA.

Fine wrote that only once since the law took effect in 1987 did the company exceed that threshold. In 1992, Halaco used about 11,700 pounds of ammonia and should have notified the EPA, Fine conceded.

Halaco has since filed the necessary paperwork with the federal agency, Fine noted.

But Drury said research done by Citizens for a Better Environment shows that Halaco has used chemicals above the reporting threshold since at least 1990, and probably as far back as 1987.

In 1992, for example, Halaco's use of ammonia and hydrogen chloride was above 10,000 pounds per year, according to records from the air pollution control district.

"The law is very clear here," Drury said. "If you release these chemicals, you've got to report."

Halaco has had previous run-ins with environmental groups and agencies. For years, the recycling operation has sparked unsuccessful lawsuits by the EPA, the Coastal Commission and Ventura County.

Halaco has been operating on a 40-acre site next to the wetlands at the southeastern border of Oxnard on Perkins Road since 1970.

The plant includes a smelting facility, a waste disposal area and a 10-acre settling pond where metal byproducts from the recycling operation are deposited.

Company officials say the settling pond was built on a type of clay soil that prevents leaks.

But a report prepared for the EPA and released in 1992 concluded that "hazardous substances, pollutants and contaminants" from the settling pond were leaking into the wetlands at Ormond Beach.

EPA officials say the site is still being considered for inclusion in the Superfund program, which would place potential cleanup under federal jurisdiction.

Still, environmentalists maintain that the EPA's investigation and the action by Citizens for a Better Environment support their contention that the plant has been polluting the wetlands.

"I think there is merit to any action that brings about greater information available to the public," said Roma Armbrust, chairwoman of the Ormond Beach Observers.

Halaco officials maintain that the recycling operation complies with state and federal requirements. But doing so has been costly, said plant manager Dave Gable.

Since January, Gable said there has been a drastic reduction at the facility. Its labor force has shrunk from 60 workers to about 25. Equipment and accounts have been sold off to processors in Arizona and Utah, Gable said.

In 1992, Halaco recorded $9.3 million in sales. Next year, the company projects sales of $8 million.

"Unfortunately, this is not something people want here in California," Gable said. "Our business is part of the bleeding that is going on in California into other states."

But Drury and others say the Community Right-to-Know-Act, and laws like it, are not meant to drive away businesses.

The 1986 act is designed to provide information to local and state governments to help them develop plans to deal with emergencies. The law aims to reduce toxic emissions by 33% by the end of this year, and 50% by the end of 1995.

But Drury concedes that the law also is designed to encourage companies to reduce their toxic emissions.

"It's been a very effective law," Drury said. "The problem is there are a lot of companies out there, like Halaco, that just don't report."

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