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City Mechanic Keeps Tabs on Toxic Wastes for Glendale

September 05, 1985|SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writer

When Glendale officials need answers to questions involving the handling of hazardous wastes, they call a small, city-owned repair shop at the western end of town. There, Bob Grier sets aside his work for Glendale's municipal power plant and pulls out his files on toxic materials.

Grier is formally an electrical mechanic for the city, and unofficially Glendale's toxic-waste expert. "This is sort of a catch-all-type thing I got stuck with," said Grier, who gets no extra pay for the job.

Handling of toxic wastes has become increasingly complicated, with added legislative requirements, new technological developments and greater liability on the part of disposers, whether they are private companies or government entities.

Different Jurisdictions

For example, the cleanup of toxic spills, whether produced in a traffic accident or by a slow leak from underground tanks, can come under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Health Services or regional water agencies, said Craig Labadie, an attorney for the League of California Cities who is studying the problem of hazardous wastes. But the responsibility of cities is still unclear, he said.

"It's very expensive; the regulations are complex, and the locals are getting conflicting signals," Labadie said.

Although Glendale officials say they are lucky to have Grier, they say the city may be forced to think about hiring a full-time specialist.

The city also is studying a more comprehensive approach to handling the hundreds of toxic substances used by the city and by local households and industry.

Control Relinquished

In another step toward clarifying its role in toxic-waste disposal, the City Council decided last week to relinquish local control of testing and monitoring of the estimated 860 underground tanks that store hazardous materials in Glendale. In a rare action for a city that prides itself on independence from outside agencies, the city turned over the task to the more expert county staff because of fears of costly litigation and toxic cleanups.

Just last month the city got a taste of how complicated and lengthy its its responsibility for toxic cleanups can be. It was told it may be responsible for at least part of the cleanup of highly toxic materials taken to North Carolina by a now-bankrupt firm. The company was hired by the city in 1982 to dispose of two truckloads of electrical transformers containing the toxic substance polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB.

Tracing Owners Takes Time

It will be months before the toxin-filled steel barrels can be traced to their original owners, said Shane Hitchcock, a spokesman for the EPA's emergency and remedial response branch. Although Glendale officials say they have fulfilled their duties, EPA officials contend that, if some of the barrels are found to have belonged to the Glendale batch, the city will be billed for part of the cleanup--possibly along with the 94 other public agencies and private firms that contracted with the firm, Safe Engineering Disposal Inc.

It was after the city discovered that it was responsible for disposing of the PCB in the city's power plant transformers that Grier began to attend seminars and night classes on the disposal of toxic substances. He began working for Glendale in 1962 as a laborer in the Sanitation and Street departments.

Until Grier began his unofficial duties in 1979, the city was "winging it" on toxic waste disposal, said Gary Yakel, who oversees city purchases.

Keeps Records

Yakel said the city pays $7,000 to $10,000 annually to toxic-waste disposal firms to haul away wastes generated in city operations. Grier keeps the records required by the state and supervises the packaging of the toxic materials for transport.

"Now we're looking at things a lot differently," Yakel said. "When we buy chemicals, we look at how they should be properly stored and handled, the flash point of certain products and what not to mix them with."

Nearly every city department that uses toxic materials--such as paints or pesticides--keeps Grier's number handy for advice on disposing of the materials that by law can no longer be dumped into sewers or local landfills.

Meanwhile, the League of California Cities has just begun work on a comprehensive policy report on the responsibility of cities to monitor household and industrial waste. That report is expected to take several months.

Interaction to Be Studied

Glendale's own study about toxic waste management, also several months from completion, will include a look at the city's relationship with other levels of government on the disposal issue. "We're doing research on the legislation to see what it is we are supposed to be doing. It's not too clear what our responsibilities are," explained Steve Adams, assistant city manager.

Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg especially wants the city to investigate the cost of having special trucks collect household wastes that may now be getting poured down drains and buried in local landfills.

Leaks from underground tanks and illegal dumping from households and industry were reported in a 1983 study to have caused pollution in excess of state health advisory limits in nearly 50 water wells in Glendale, Burbank and the San Fernando Valley, including some now targeted for cleanup.

"The Scholl Canyon landfill, as sure as I am sitting here, has toxic wastes," said Bremberg, mentioning one of the city's disposal areas that was filled over and made into a golf course. She said, "Many people don't realize that they are contributing to the toxicity of their own drinking water." She said materials that could harm water quality include "paint thinner cans, oil, Saniflush, all the things that people use on a day-to-day basis that could leach into the ground water."

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