HAWTHORNE — On one side of the chain-link fence was a grassy lawn where children played. On the other side, environmental investigators found about two dozen drums containing cyanide, hexavalent chromium, perchloroethylene and cadmium.
The scene was Epic Plating Inc., an electroplating firm in the 4900 block of West Rosecrans Avenue. What investigators discovered Oct. 21 has led to felony charges against Epic Plating owner Arthur Filler of illegally storing and disposing of toxic waste. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Filler conceded in an interview this week that he stored the chemicals, but he denied knowingly violating regulations and said he had corrected all the problems.
"We have been here a long time and we are not criminals," he said. "There never has been anyone hurt."
Officials acknowledged that no one was hurt, but they shudder at what might have happened.
"It was raining when we got there," said Deputy Dist. Atty. William Carter, who took part in the Oct. 21 search. "Some of these elements were being washed into the ground. One drum of cyanide in particular was leaking."
If the cyanide had mixed with waste acids also produced by Epic Plating, the result could have been a cloud of deadly cyanide gas, according to Daniel Fresquez, enforcement coordinator of the Los Angeles County Hazardous Waste Control Program.
"That is why we made him get everything out of there," Fresquez said.
Fresquez said preliminary indications revealed soil contamination of the Epic Plating property but none in neighboring yards.
The incident was one of several cited in a felony complaint information detailing three felonies and 11 misdemeanors.
An investigator had returned to Epic Plating 10 days later and said he found some drums still stored there illegally. Four days after that, Filler flushed toxic waste down a sewer line, according to a third charge.
The three incidents all resulted in felony charges, and the prosecutor said he will seek a prison sentence if Filler is convicted. Filler also was cited for 10 misdemeanor counts of storing toxic waste illegally and one of violating the county sanitation waste water ordinance.
Filler's attorney, John Shaby, said the case will be defended vigorously.
"Our response was that any discharge was accidental, if there was a discharge. . . . If he had been discharging all the time, there would have been nothing (stored) in the backyard," he said. "The first time (Filler) was aware of a storage problem was when he was notified."
The case, which began in December, 1984, with a county Sanitation Department citation for violating waste discharge regulations. Filler acknowledged the violation but was not fined.
The case is one of a series brought by the district attorney's Toxic Waste Strike Force against electroplating companies. There are six pending cases including the one against Filler, and there have been three previous convictions and one permanent injunction issued against electroplating firms.
About 500 electroplating firms in Los Angeles County use toxic solutions containing acids, cyanide and heavy metals in a process that deposits a thin metal coating on a metallic surface. The process can be used to harden machine parts, place a protective coating on areas exposed to corrosion or recondition worn parts.
"We are finding that electroplaters are a large percentage of our enforcement," Carter said. "They have been the focus of a lot of attention because they deal with a lot of hazardous materials."
Many of the firms, like Epic Plating, are small operations, a factor Carter said can lead to violations.
"Mr. Filler . . . seems to have the typical attitude that most small businesses have, that he is trying to make ends meet and he is trying to take care of disposal," Carter said.
Fresquez added, "There is no question that legal disposal is very expensive. We have to transport the stuff to Santa Barbara or Ventura County. By not legally disposing, he was saving a lot of money."
But Filler denied that he cut corners on disposal to save money. "No, that was not ever the intent," he said.
And attorney Shaby added: "We deny there was any disposal of the chemicals. They were hauled away by an appropriately licensed hauler after (Filler) was given notice that they were improperly stored."
"If Mr. Filler is convicted and got the maximum, he is looking at several hundred thousand dollars of fines and several years in state prisons," Carter said.
"It is a serious case because we have a situation where we have a lot of hazardous materials close to homes. . . . Our office has always felt that jail time is a much greater deterrence than a fine, that individuals understand that they cannot get out of it by looking at it as a cost of doing business."
Opposed to Jail
Shaby said: "I am not willing at this time to recommend any plea that would cause (Filler) to go to jail."
Behind the Epic Plating property is the backyard of Alice Sykora.
"We had grandchildren playing here all summer. For years they have been using the yard," said Sykora. She was unaware that Epic Plating had stored cyanide a few feet from her property.
"Oh, my God," she said when a reporter told her of the charges. "I did not know. Gee, it was going on right under our noses."
"Sometimes," added her husband Ben, "you could smell something but you never knew where it came from."
Another Epic Plating neighbor, Thelma V. Taylor, 75, said the company has been "a good neighbor. . . . (They) never cause trouble . . . they have always been nice to me." Then she pointed to dead areas of lawn in her backyard. "I don't know if it made my grass turn brown, but it did poorly this summer," she said.