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Plan Sought for Growing Quake Debris Problem

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fearing an impending health hazard, a Los Angeles City Council panel called on public works officials Tuesday to draft a plan to clear away earthquake debris that has accumulated since a federally funded cleanup program ended last month.

Since the program ran out of funds July 17, about 120,000 tons of quake debris have piled up on city streets, according to street maintenance officials, who say they can haul away only 300 tons each week.

“At this rate, it will literally take years” to clear everything, said William White, assistant director for street maintenance.

Members of the council’s Ad Hoc Earthquake Recovery Committee said the debris could become a health hazard and a breeding ground for rats and other vermin.

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Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents parts of the western San Fernando Valley, said her office has received more than 500 calls from residents complaining about illegally dumped rubble since the federal program ended.

“We have situations where we have health hazards,” she said.

Art Aguirre, deputy director for the county’s Environmental Health Services Department, said the debris piles can be breeding grounds for rats if they contain material that vermin can live on, such as wood, paper and leftover food and trash.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ended the cleanup program after spending $233 million to haul away 2.3 million tons of rubble in the 18 months since the quake.

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During the program, the city hired up to 65 crews--each with two trucks and a skip-loader--to clean up street-side debris. Without the federal funds, officials have only two crews to cover the entire city, White said.

But members of the earthquake recovery committee said the two crews are not enough to clear the growing amounts of debris and instructed the city’s engineering and street maintenance departments to draft a cleanup plan by next week.

Councilman Hal Bernson, who chairs the panel and represents parts of the northwest Valley, said he fears that any program to increase the number of cleanup crews will require more funding--funding he said the city doesn’t have.

“This may mean putting less police on the streets or closing libraries for certain hours,” he said.

Since the end of the federal program, White said, the city has begun citing property owners for dumping on streets and sidewalks. Those cited face a misdemeanor, which can include a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in jail, or they can be charged the cost of cleanup, which can range from $800 to $1,200 per ton.

Those cited have three days to comply. If city crews then clear the debris--a process that began Monday--the owner is charged the cost of cleanup. But if the city’s crews are too busy, the owner is cited for a misdemeanor.

Thus far, White said, the city has investigated 236 rubble piles and has cited 186 property owners.

In the past two weeks, city crews have cleared away 600 tons of debris dumped on public property, such as flood control channels, empty lots, and in front of homes without the permission of owners.

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