Firm Pleads Guilty to Dumping Toxins in Sewers

Times Staff Writer

A Buena Park custom wheel company was ordered to pay $425,000 after pleading guilty Thursday to dumping toxic waste into storm water and sewer systems.

Ultra Wheel illegally dumped nickel, aluminum and chrome into the waterways near its plant between October 2000 and September 2001, corporation secretary Sharon Wood admitted in Orange County Superior Court.

Criminal charges against company owner James Smith -- one of the originators of NASCAR truck racing -- and three line managers were dismissed as part of the plea agreement. Smith's attorney, Craig J. Williams, said his client regretted the incident.

"Certainly since we pleaded guilty I can't say it was an accident," Williams said outside the Santa Ana courtroom. "But everything the company did was intended to follow safety procedures. There was no intent to do anything illegal."

The company's punishment was fair considering it paid to clean the water systems and upgraded its facility to prevent future contamination, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Joel Stone. Ultra Wheel was placed on probation for three years and must pay the maximum fines the law requires for such violations, about $2 million, if any investigations during that time show criminal dumping.

The hazardous waste never posed a public health threat, Stone said.

Charges were filed after a tipster told the Orange County Health Care Agency about the dumping and the district attorney's office conducted a four-month investigation. During that time, Stone said, water tested around the facility had a pH level akin to battery acid.

Of Ultra Wheel's payment, $112,000 will reimburse governmental agencies such as the county health agency for cleanup and investigation costs. The remaining $313,000 constitutes a fine to be divided among the state's hazardous substances account, the district attorney and the county's agency in charge of toxic substance control.

Both attorneys agreed that Ultra Wheel is not alone in engaging in such activity.

"For those companies breaking the law," Stone said, "this case sends them the message that polluters will pay."

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