Looking as if they were in a line for a drive-in movie, 578 cars and trucks inched through a barren dirt site in Huntington Beach on Saturday, delivering cargoes of explosive, inflammable and sometimes deadly poisonous products.
It was Orange County's first toxic spring cleaning, a first-time effort by officials to help residents safely dispose of ordinary household items such as latex paint, drain cleaners, pesticides, furniture polishes and air fresheners.
Discarded toxic chemicals from garages, work sheds and kitchen cupboards were sorted into more than 200 metal drums. The turnout, and thus the success, of the toxic roundup surprised organizers and toxic depositors alike, some of whom waited two hours for the gates to open at 9 a.m. in front of an old transfer station on Gothard Street.
"I didn't expect anything like this turnout," said Phil Gentile of the Disposal Control Service, an Upland waste hauler that won the job of moving Orange County's toxic household goods. "In Redlands, we collected 20 drums" in a similar roundup, he said. "In Victorville, we got seven. . . . I've had to order another bunch of drums."
Without getting out of their cars, a steady stream of residents drove through the free collection site for six hours, stopping at a main drop-off point while the toxic substances were carefully removed by county health and fire officials wearing protective gloves.
Too often, organizers said, people rid themselves of products that they don't realize are harmful to the environment by tossing them in the trash, flushing them down the toilet or pouring them into a drain.
"What this has proved," said Blake Anderson, operations director of the county sanitation districts, "is that people will dump their stuff, if we run the right publicity so they know when and where to do it."
Rusty paint cans, aerosol bottles without labels, pesticide sprays and myriad other noxious leftovers were first laid out on a plastic tarp so the ground would not be contaminated, then sorted into categories as corrosive, inflammable, poisonous or irritant. Wearing yellow rubber suits and gloves, Disposal Control employees worked briskly to sort, identify and pack the toxic household wastes into 55-gallon drums that would be trucked over the weekend to Casmalia Resource Management, a chemical treatment facility near Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County. There, the drums will be buried.
"I brought some old paint that I've had in the garage for a couple of months--oh, probably even longer than that," said Roy Richards, 55, of Huntington Beach. He had packed up the back of his van Saturday morning. "I think it's a damn good idea, and everyone should bring their stuff, even kick in a few bucks," he said.
Terry Anderson, 47, a captain with the Buena Park Fire Department, said three residents had left cyanide alcohols and acids in glass and plastic containers at the fire station, because they didn't know what to do with it. So Anderson, a fire-prevention inspector who lives in La Mirada, did them a favor and loaded it into his camper, where he waited patiently in line with the rest.
"I didn't even know we couldn't throw this stuff away until I got the thing in the mail," said Todd Motshagen, 21, of Huntington Beach. He and a buddy had crammed half a dozen 10-year-old cans of latex paint into the back of his black Porsche.
Said David Levine, 74, of Corona del Mar: "We're like anyone else. You use a little bit of paint of a gallon and you hate to waste it (by just throwing it away). Now we're moving, and what do you do with it?" he said.
At least half of the depositors were over 60 years old, and the two most common items left at the collection site were house paint and drain cleaners, health officials said.
The drive-through collection was sponsored by the county and its hazardous materials program, the sanitation Districts of Orange County, Huntington Beach Fire Department and the Orange County League of Women Voters. Volunteers circulated questionnaires at the exit gates, asking where they had disposed of household toxic products in the past, how often they would use a permanent disposal facility and "what type of waste did you bring?"
A majority of the people said they would probably use a waste disposal facility once or twice a year, and that they were willing to pay between $1 and $5 to do so.
Supervisor on the Scene
Most participants said they had heard about the free collection through newspaper articles and a mailer sent to homes in the second supervisory district, where Supervisor Harriett Wieder spearheaded what she called "the trial-balloon effort."
Wieder, dressed in a gray and black warm-up suit, arrived at the site about 1:45 p.m. and visited throughout the afternoon with workers and drivers alongside their cars.
Local trash and sewer fees paid for most of the collection effort, she said, and plans are being made for future collections.