When longtime engineers Bob Speach and Quin Johnson heard that Los Angeles County was touting a plan for turning liquid toxic wastes into dry bits of rocklike material, they thought they were experiencing deja vu .
For five years, the two men have waded through governmental red tape and ignored skeptical colleagues, pursuing a dream they believed could help end the dumping of hazardous wastes in Southern California.
Like the county, they saw the value in turning liquid wastes into less hazardous dry material, using a chemical process long practiced throughout Denmark and Germany that removes metals and other toxins from waste water. The process also has been used on a limited basis by U.S. industries.
Federal experts say the dry residue can be incinerated or buried, posing far fewer hazards than toxic liquids dumped into a landfill.
But Speach and Johnson say they have come up with an even better idea.
Instead of building treatment centers throughout the county--to which dozens of trucks would transport hazardous liquids along streets and freeways each day--they have invented what county officials say is the county's first treatment plant on wheels.
'It's So Simple'
"We don't haul the waste to the plant like the county has proposed," Speach said. "We bring the treatment plant to the waste.
"No spills, no traffic hazards. It's so simple, it's beautiful."
Hazardous-waste trucks from Los Angeles County are expected to log 45,000 miles on freeways and streets this year, according to a report by the Southern California Hazardous Waste Management Project, a coalition of local government groups.
Mobile treatment vans could alleviate that problem, and would provide an alternative to thousands of small companies that cannot afford their own treatment plants. Those companies must hire trucks to haul their wastes to toxic dumps in Casmalia and Kettleman Hills, both about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.
Small waste generators, estimated to number more than 15,000 in Southern California, contributed a substantial share to the 560,000 tons of toxic wastes shipped from Los Angeles County to those and other disposal sites last year, according to state and county sanitation officials.
But new federal regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act will phase out land dumping of most hazardous wastes in the next five years, forcing waste generators to find other disposal methods, county and state officials say.
As a result, said Kieran Bergin, county Sanitation Districts engineer, "everybody is scrambling to find some alternative to hauling it off. We think the only real alternative is treatment."
In fact, Los Angeles County is pursuing a pilot project to build a regional system of toxic waste treatment plants in industrial sectors, where liquids would be reduced to dry cakes for burial in a clay-fortified landfill in the desert.
The plan, recently praised by officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency as "precedent-setting," has received national attention because many environmental experts and scientists believe such systems will soon replace traditional land disposal of toxic wastes.
Speach, whose Rancho Dominguez company, Environmental Services Division, hopes to have 19 more mobile vans operating in 1986, said that since word got around about his company's mobile van, "the phones have been ringing off the hook from people asking us to come out and treat their stuff."
The company has treated waste water at 20 businesses since it began testing the van in the field a few months ago, and now Environmental Services is awaiting word on $1 million in private financing for a fleet of vans.
Speach said that although the first van cost about $300,000 to design, develop and "get the bugs out," the rest of the vehicles should cost a fraction of that amount. Once the fleet is operating, he said, the company hopes to turn a profit within a few years.
Speach's and Johnson's prototype treatment plant is squeezed--just barely--inside a 22-foot-long truck.
"It was quite an achievement," said Johnson, who spent the better part of the last five years designing and refining a plant that would fit into the truck.
"Some guys at one company were so interested in the insides of my van that I had to make sure they weren't memorizing everything," said Johnson. "We are working with patent attorneys to protect the design."
The mobile plant can transform 5,000 gallons of toxic metal-laden or acid-tainted water into colorful chunks of solid material in about eight hours. The residue amounts to about 10% of the original bulk and is taken to a landfill that accepts toxic wastes. The leftover water is crystal clear and nontoxic, with only traces of metal remaining.
If the mobile van concept gains acceptance, Speach said, his company hopes to give the large waste haulers who dominate the industry "a real run for their money."