For a few terrifying moments in the early morning hours of the recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, authorities in Los Angeles were concerned that terrorists had launched an attack in a downtown subway station.
Several people had been overcome by a cloud of noxious gas, causing at least two of them to begin vomiting and a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy to experience a burning sensation in his eyes and lungs.
But hazardous-materials teams were unable to find the source of the gas in the Metro station at 7th and Figueroa streets, so fears of terrorism began to fade. Ultimately, investigators determined that the toxic cloud was chlorine gas emanating from a storm catch basin two blocks away.
The culprit, prosecutors allege, was not some scary extremist group, but the owner of The Standard, a trendy downtown hotel with a reputation for celebrity sightings and a rooftop swimming pool.
Hotel maintenance workers initially admitted pouring a small amount of chlorine down a rooftop drain. But investigators did not believe that would have accounted for the noxious cloud. An FBI agent, who specializes in environmental crimes and who is known for her pit bull-like tenacity, conducted follow-up interviews in which employees eventually acknowledged emptying the majority of two 50-gallon drums of muriatic acid and chlorine into the drain, the complaint alleges.
As a result, the company that owns the hotel was charged by the U.S. attorney’s office late Thursday with knowingly disposing of hazardous waste. If convicted, the company could be fined up to $500,000.
“The law does not discriminate between hazardous wastes generated by chic hotels or foul junkyards,” said Asst. U.S. Atty. Joe Johns, who is prosecuting the case. “What they did is not only illegal, it’s extremely dangerous.”
A New York public relations firm hired to represent the company that owns the hotel -- Andre Balazs Properties -- issued a statement of apology.
“We are sorry for this employee mistake involving diluted swimming pool chemicals,” the statement read. “We will continue to assist the government.”
The incident began about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 19 when someone called the Los Angeles Police Department and complained about a chemical smell coming from the Metro stop. Officials became more concerned when they heard the reports of people becoming ill. In 1995, terrorists had released sarin nerve gas inside the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and sickening thousands of others.
James Peaco, coordinator of the FBI’s weapons of mass destruction squad in Los Angeles, received a message on his BlackBerry shortly after the gas cloud was reported downtown. Initially, Peaco didn’t think much of it. His team is summoned about a once a week to deal with suspicious packages and all manner of other potential threats. Rarely do they turn out to be the real deal.
But when Peaco saw the words “chlorine” and “subway” in the same sentence, he felt his stomach tighten.
“Chlorine is not naturally occurring,” he recalled thinking to himself at the time, “and the subway is a venue we anticipated as a target. So I thought this was actually a terrorist attack.”
Peaco said he was so concerned that he called his bosses in L.A. and FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., with a warning to be alert for potential simultaneous attacks across the country.
In addition to Peaco’s squad, hazmat teams from the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department and the Fire Department converged on the scene. When they traced the chlorine to the drain outside The Standard, fumes were still rising to the street above, so police shut down the intersection of 6th and Flower streets, snarling traffic for hours.
Meanwhile, an LAPD officer made his way to the roof of the hotel and interviewed employees who acknowledged pouring a small amount of old pool chlorine into the drain, according to the complaint. The officer noticed an empty 50-gallon tank labeled “muriatic acid” under some stairs near the pool, but employees denied dumping any of that into the drain. There was another unmarked 50-gallon tank -- this one nearly empty -- nearby.
In follow-up interviews, Annette O’Donnelly, the FBI agent with the reputation for being tenacious, discovered that the two tanks contained chemicals that were left over from when the pool operated on a different cleaning system.
She interviewed two supervisors and a graveyard-shift maintenance employee who ultimately acknowledged pumping the contents of the two tanks into a drain, according to court documents. Running water from a hose was used in an attempt to dilute the discharge.
The terrorism scare notwithstanding, it is illegal to dump chlorine and acid into the sewer system because such contents can corrode pipes, overcome maintenance workers with fumes and harm the environment.
Mark Rowley, the hotel’s chief engineer, allegedly told O’Donnelly he knew the “best way” to get rid of the chemicals would have been to hire a disposal company to truck them away, according to court records.
But he decided “we could deal with it this way,” the court documents state.
Times staff writer Jason Felch contributed to this report