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California to launch task force on scrap metal recycling problems

A man takes an old truck cab apart looking for pieces he can sell to a metal recycler in Los Angeles.
(Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times)

State officials said Thursday that they will start a task force to target problems posed by scrap metal recycling operations across California, which have been loosely regulated and linked to environmental contamination and numerous fires and explosions in recent years.

The move by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control marks the first large-scale attempt to coordinate oversight of such operations, which handle hazardous metals and can generate toxic dust that pollutes the air and the ocean. Because workers use blowtorches and shears to process old cars, canisters and other metals, the operations also pose a fire danger.

“We are looking for those [facilities] that pose the greatest threat to human health and the environment,” said Brian Johnson, the recently appointed head of enforcement for the department.

The action comes less than a month after a Times investigation into the state’s scrap industry found widespread violations of environmental laws and accidents that killed or seriously injured workers and harmed residential communities. The Times found that at least 23 fires and explosions had occurred at scrap metal operations in the last three years. A few days after the story was published, a Sun Valley operation, Kramar’s Iron and Metal, burst into flames and a worker was injured.

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Discussions about the new enforcement effort had been underway for a few months, Johnson said, but the Times report raised awareness of the issue among the public and regulators.

Numerous state and local agencies are responsible for overseeing aspects of the industry. Their lack of coordination made it more difficult to bring bad actors into compliance.

In their new venture, toxics department officials said they plan to collaborate with agencies that regulate air and water quality, as well as local fire and hazardous materials officials and others to force the worst polluters to clean up.

Los Angeles County is the epicenter of the industry, because of its proximity to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where much of the metal is shipped out to factories in Asia. But Johnson said officials would be looking at operations across the state, including places where local officials may lack technical and environmental expertise.

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The number of scrap operations in California is growing, as businesses rush to take advantage of relatively high prices because of demand for metal abroad. Many pop up without permits, some without the knowledge of regulators. A Los Angeles police detective said he shut down 12 such operations in the city alone last year.

Exports of scrap metal are worth $7 billion annually in California.

News of the toxics department’s plan was cheered by environmentalists and some scrap operators.

“I think that’s a long time coming,” said Liz Crosson, who heads the environmental group Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

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Jeff Farano, the attorney for SA Recycling of Anaheim, one of the largest recyclers in the state, said unpermitted operations are giving the industry a bad name and undercutting legitimate operators’ business. Companies like his spend a fortune complying with environmental regulations, he said, and it is frustrating that others just open their doors with little regard to safety or health regulations.

“I think it’s necessary. There’s been no enforcement,” he said.

Some agencies already have stepped up their oversight.

Earlier this summer, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office filed criminal charges against three recyclers in South Los Angeles, accusing them of polluting the environment. The charges came after inspections carried out by numerous agencies, including the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s hazardous materials division and the regional water board.

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Johnson said his agency also has “enforcement cases in the pipeline.”

Jessica.garrison@latimes.com


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