Emergencies involving toxic waste, including illegal dumping, increased more than fourfold in Orange County last year over what they were in 1983, an environmental health official said Wednesday.
And so far this year, emergency incidents such as the discovery of toxic and highly combustible material along Ortega Highway this week have occurred at least once a day, compared to 45 incidents in all of 1983.
County officials say the statistics show that firm enforcement action is needed as well as long-term treatment and disposal alternatives.
"I think we are finding just the tip of the iceberg," Robert Merryman, county environmental health director, said Wednesday.
Complaints about illegal dumping of hazardous waste nearly doubled in 1985 compared to 1983, due in part to increased awareness by the public and industry, Merryman and others said.
But they say the greatest factor is the skyrocketing cost of legal disposal since the closures of a series of landfills that had received toxic materials.
Last month's closure of the last such Southern California landfill--the Casmalia landfill in Santa Barbara County--to liquid hazardous waste is expected to further hike disposal costs and "significantly increase" the likelihood of illegal disposal, Merryman said in a report to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
The primary intent of tightened federal and state regulations that have led to the closures of these landfills has been to "encourage more treatment and recycling of toxics," said Robert Griffiths, director of the county's hazardous materials program.
Disposal Costs Climb
In fact, Griffiths said, the great majority of Orange County's 5,000 generators of an estimated 493,000 tons of hazardous waste annually do have on-site treatment facilities and/or recycle their toxic materials.
But for those that still rely on dumps, "each time a landfill closes, the cost of disposal goes up, and that makes it more and more difficult for that small marginal company," Griffiths said.
Merryman called for increased vigilance on the part of the public and industry.
"This problem is going to have to be attacked through greater community and employee awareness and strong enforcement," he said Wednesday.
But over the long term, the emphasis must be on "readily accessible hazardous waste treatment facilities" and "collection and transfer sites (that) would reduce disposal costs to small industries," Merryman wrote in a December report on the impact of the November, 1984, barring of hazardous wastes from the BKK dump in West Covina.
Inspections of 357 Orange County firms that had disposed of waste at BKK in 1984 revealed a 32.8% decline in hazardous waste going to disposal sites in 1985, and an increase in recycling and installation of on-site treatment facilities, according to the report made public on Wednesday.
Still, more than 50% of the toxic materials generated by those firms went to landfills. About a third of the total went to Casmalia, which has since closed to liquid waste.
Most disturbing, however, was the finding that 1.5%, or 550 tons of toxic waste, was disposed of "in an unknown manner." Another 10.5 tons were illegally dumped at Orange County sanitary landfills.
Also, 270 of the 357 firms were cited for a total of 992 violations of the state Hazardous Waste Control Act, including 22 violations for leaking containers and incompatible storage, the report said.
Although Griffiths speculated that poor record keeping or storage could explain the unaccounted-for toxics, the report said: "The possibility exists that some of this may have been disposed of illegally.
"At a minimum, it is clear that these firms are not exercising the appropriate controls over their wastes.
"Also very significant is the fact that 266 of (the 270 cited) firms had not trained their employees in the handling of hazardous wastes or had not developed a contingency plan for dealing with emergency incidents."
Merryman indicated that the worst violators will be reinspected in the near future and legal action will be taken against repeat offenders.
To beef up these and other enforcement efforts, including a state-mandated inspection of underground tanks, Orange County in the last year has added about 18 inspectors to the dozen or so on the environmental health division staff.
Last fall, funds were approved for a special unit in the district attorney's office to investigate and prosecute environmental cases.
The county's recently enacted hazardous waste disclosure ordinance also is expected to help. And county officials also are developing a hazardous waste management plan.
Even so, the county will be hard pressed to keep up with the escalating number of toxic emergencies and reports of illegal dumping. Emergency responses totaled 208 in 1985 contrasted with 45 incidents in 1983. Illegal dumping complaints jumped from 87 in 1983 to 235 last year.
In the meantime, the costs of responding to emergency hazardous waste incidents are piling up.