Hein Lam of Arcadia picked the wrong day to clean out his garage and take a load of three old computers to the Puente Hills landfill near Whittier.
As he unloaded trash bags from his minivan, Lam was greeted by a team of state investigators, which promptly issued him a citation for illegal disposal of hazardous waste.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control this week launched a novel effort to inspect loads of trash for illegal waste, beginning at Puente Hills, the nation's largest landfill. For the first time, the department issued misdemeanor citations to haulers.
The goal is to keep hazardous compounds such as asbestos, mercury, arsenic and lead out of the environment.
"This landfill does a lot to keep this kind of stuff out, but we're finding much of it is concealed intentionally," said Jose Lara, a branch chief and supervising criminal investigator at the state toxics agency. "We want to get the message out that the department is not going to tolerate it anymore."
Lam, who could face a $400 fine, said he didn't know electronic waste was illegal. But sanitation district officials said every driver is warned about the prohibitions when they arrive.
In one five-hour span Thursday, the officers seized a heap of paints, electronics and other illegal waste and issued seven citations, which each carry a potential fine of $250 to $1,000. The state team was at Puente Hills for three days -- inspecting small truckloads, not commercial garbage trucks -- and cited about two dozen people.
Only about half of the people found with hazardous waste were cited. The rest got a warning and a primer on state toxic waste laws.
"The guy with one lightbulb is one thing. But the guy with a sign on a truck saying 'Johnny Will Haul Anything' is another," said Charles Stone, a criminal investigator at the department.
Up to 13,200 tons of trash are dumped every day at Puente Hills, enough to fill the Rose Bowl in less than 13 days. What looks like lush foothills from the Pomona Freeway is one of the world's largest heaps of trash, spread across 700 acres, rising as high as 500 feet tall and landscaped with trees and brush.
As the investigators inspected the loads Thursday, a matching couch and chair sat next to wood planks, metal pipes, a door frame and a 5-foot-tall heap of foot-long pink plastic toy containers. All that was legal. Instead, the officers were searching for liquid waste, batteries, chemically treated wood, appliances, TV sets and other banned garbage.
One of the newest state laws bans electronics, or e-waste, from landfills. Lara estimated that 90% of Californians are now aware that they must recycle electronic waste.
Don Avila, information officer for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districtsplural, which operates the Puente Hills landfill, said the district randomly inspects seven trucks per day, and of about 94,000 pounds of trash checked, less than three 3 pounds of hazardous waste are found, a rate of about 0.003%.
A few minutes after Lam left, another man drove up and unloaded about 15 cans of paint and other coatings. And while the investigators were busy writing him a citation, another trucker pulled up, dumped a load of trash on the ground and left before they could inspect it.
Lara said he doubts the state agency will be able to inspect more landfills soon. Half of its investigators have left recently for better paying jobs, leaving seven to handle all hazardous waste crimes statewide.