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Judge Refuses to Order Cleanup at Toxic Site in Santa Fe Springs

April 14, 1985|MELINDA BURNS | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — Citing insufficient evidence, a Superior Court judge has denied the state's request for a temporary restraining order against a Santa Fe Springs firm that is on the state's list of worst toxic sites.

The order, part of a lawsuit filed by the state Department of Health Services against Neville Chemical Co., would have required the firm to remove contaminated piles of dirt on its property and place a protective cover over an adjacent empty lot.

State Alleges Possible Health Danger

The state argued in court Wednesday that highly toxic chemicals--including a close relative of dioxin--found on the site and in the lot next to the firm on East Imperial Highway may constitute an "imminent or substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare." The plant, which manufactures chlorinated wax, is near Norwalk Manor, a complex of residential condominiums.

Neville officials contested the type and levels of contaminants found on and off the site, saying that further tests are needed.

In denying the state's request, Judge Ralph Biggerstaff said Wednesday that "there isn't enough evidence for the court to make a finding." He directed Neville only to cover piles of dirt on its property.

The judge's ruling coincides with Neville's position, plant manager Jack Ferguson said .

A hearing was set for April 22 on the state's request for a preliminary injunction requiring Neville to cover the area next to the site with plastic sheeting, maintain the cover and carry out extensive, long-term sampling of both the soil and ground water on and off site.

The Neville case is the first to be brought to court exclusively under the state Superfund law, which provides funds for cleanup of the state's worst toxic waste sites, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul Hammerness said in an interview.

Under the law, the state is suing for $198,000--three times the amount it has spent to take samples and install protective covering at Neville--plus three times any additional money it will spend there. The Neville facility is 32nd on the state's list of 191 worst sites.

The state filed suit over Neville's non-compliance with state orders requiring protective covering and testing at the site--a prerequisite for cleanup, Hammerness said.

"Until we know the extent of the problem," he said, "we don't know how much of a cleanup is required."

Neville was placed on the state's list after preliminary tests showed the presence on and near the site of the toxic chemicals dichlorobenzene and tetradibenzofuran, which are similar to dioxin in some forms. The chemicals were found in two samples taken within 100 yards of Norwalk Manor.

The company failed to comply with four orders issued by the state, said Jim Smith, program manager for the toxic substances control division of the Department of Health Services, Southern California section. Beginning in March, 1984, the state required Neville to cover the vacant lot next to the site with a plastic sheet, post a guard to keep trespassers out, put up "Keep Out" signs and test the soil for contaminants.

Sporadic Compliance

The company complied off and on but never fully, Smith said in an interview. Eventually, the state spent Superfund money to cover the empty lot, which is roughly the size of a football field. When Neville failed to maintain the cover, Smith said, the state spent more money to patch it--for a total of $66,000. Since January, he said, the cover has been gone completely, and "we're concerned (contaminated dirt) might blow off the facility into residential areas."

Of particular concern is the presence of furan, a highly toxic chemical compound found in amounts of 150 parts per billion in samples taken from the vacant lot, Smith said. Furan has a chemical structure very similar to that of dioxin, a highly toxic chemical, and there is reason to believe that, like dioxin, the furan compound is carcinogenic and can cause birth defects, Hammerness said.

Product of Distillation

The state suspects that the furan appeared at the plant as a contaminant in the distillation process of dichlorobenzene, a solvent used in the production of paraffin. The highest concentration of contaminants has been found on the plant premises, Smith said.

Because furans are uncommon in the environment, there is "not enough of a history of this unusual chemical to establish a standard" for safe levels, Smith said. But state Health Services Department epidemiologists found the level of 150 parts per billion of the furan compound--a level first identified by Neville in its own samples from the vacant lot--to constitute a danger to public health, Hammerness said.

In court Wednesday, however, Neville lawyer Norman Dupont disputed the findings, arguing that "our expert says these levels are substantially reduced. We have requested a re-test."

Plant manager Ferguson said in an interview the company has found no levels of the furans above one part per billion in samples from the vacant lot. The company is re-testing its original samples, with results expected by the April 22 hearing.

Because of the inconclusive evidence, there is no "immediate hazard" at this point, Ferguson said.

"This whole thing can be taken care of," he said. Meanwhile, he said, the company does not feel it is responsible for dirt control measures off the site.

Pending a decision in court, Smith said, the state will "probably cover the site again. . . . We don't think it's a real good idea to complete this debate while the site remains uncovered."

The ground water has not been tested, he said.

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