NORWALK — A Superior Court judge has issued a tentative ruling requiring a Santa Fe Springs firm to pave its property and an adjacent empty lot where highly toxic chemicals similar to dioxin have been found.
Thursday's judgment came on a request by the state Department of Health Services for a preliminary injunction against Neville Chemical Co., which ranks 32nd out of 191 on the state's list of worst toxic waste sites. Superior Court Judge John Stanton told both sides in chambers Thursday that he would issue the injunction Monday, giving Neville 60 days to comply, state officials said.
Stanton's decision "is what we wanted, really," Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul Hammerness said in an interview. "I'm very satisfied."
The court order, if issued, would come in a suit filed by the state after Neville disregarded several state orders requiring protective measures and further testing for contaminants, Hammerness said.
State officials said that Stanton indicated he would not at this time order the company to initiate long-term tests of soil and ground water at the site as requested by the state. (The granting of the preliminary injunction would indicate the state demonstrated the likelihood it will win its case at trial and that the situation at Neville needs immediate attention.)
The case, which lawyers for both sides called "precedent setting," is the first to be brought to court exclusively under the state Superfund law of 1983 for cleanup of the worst toxic waste sites. Under that law, the state must show that there "may be an imminent or substantial endangerment to the public health" for the court to order a firm to test, cover or clean up a hazardous site.
At Neville, a manufacturer of chlorinated wax used to coat cables and wires, "we really do believe there's no imminent hazard that would require" an asphalt pavement on the firm's property and adjacent lot, said company lawyer Norman Dupont. However, he said, "If indeed this (order) is it , that would be greatly to Neville's benefit. If we can put a period on this episode, that's fine."
But the state is not finished with the company on East Imperial Highway.
The state previously had told Neville to place a protective cover on the vacant lot and test the soil for contaminants. When Neville failed to fully comply, the state filed its lawsuit.
Thursday's tentative judgment came after six days of expert testimony that began April 23 on the state's request for a preliminary injunction against Neville. The injunction would have required the firm to take protective measures on the lot, carry out extensive long-term tests of the soil there and drill 15 water-monitoring wells to test for possible contamination of the ground water.
Although the judge declined to order long-term tests, state health officials will issue a separate order requiring Neville to begin extensive tests of the soil and ground water, said Jim Smith, program manager for the toxic substances control division of the state Department of Health Services.
The lot, which is owned by the City of Santa Fe Springs, borders on Norwalk Manor, a complex of residential condominiums. In the past, the firm apparently dumped its hazardous wastes in the lot, Hammerness said.
The state's suit also seeks recovery of $198,000--three times what it has spent to take samples and install protective covering at Neville--plus three times the state's legal costs and penalties for non-compliance with previous orders.
"We're looking at the chance to get back every penny we've spent to date," Hammerness said in an interview. And if the company refuses to comply with orders for further testing, "we'll do it and send them the bill," he said.
Trial is pending.
The highly technical and often confusing testimony in the case centered on the levels of tetrachlorodibenzofurans, or furans--relatively untested chemical compound--found in one sample taken from the empty lot. Furans are similar in structure to the chemical dioxin, which is highly toxic and carcinogenic and can cause birth defects.
During the testimony, chemists and toxicologists for each side drew different conclusions from the same data.
Citing studies done with animals, experts for the company argued that furans are one-tenth as toxic as dioxins. The concentration of furans in a sample taken at Neville was 7.3 parts per billion, they said.
Danger Level Estimated
Based on experience in the field and decisions by regulatory agencies, the company's witnesses set the danger level for furans at 75 to 100 parts per billion.
At the same time, Dupont conceded in an interview, "If you were to ask 100 scientists for an acceptable level, you would probably get 100 answers."
State witnesses argued that furans are just as toxic as dioxin and said the level in the Neville sample was 73 parts per billion. A level of 1 part per billion of dioxin is reason for concern, a state toxicologist testified.
"What if humans are more susceptible than animals to these (furans)?" Hammerness asked the court in his closing arguments Wednesday. "There is no testimony from the defense as to whether or not there's a safe level for exposure. Is there a safe level? I don't think anyone knows at this point."
Besides, he said, the sample taken "may not be the hottest spot in that off-site area." The real danger is that the area has not been sufficiently tested, Hammerness said.
'Threat to Workers'
Children play on the empty lot and railroad employees work on tracks nearby. Moreover, a company bulldozer has recently been at work on the lot, creating dust that could carry contaminants throughout the area, Hammerness said. And although levels of furan contamination are lower on the firm's property, they still pose a "threat to workers every day in the plant area," he said.