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Wachs Urges Study of Toxic Cleanup at Atwater Firm

January 30, 1986|SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs has asked the city attorney's office to investigate what he said are delays in the cleanup of a toxic dump site at the closed Franciscan Ceramics factory in Atwater.

Meanwhile, a Wachs aide said the discovery of lead-tainted ceramic sludge buried on the property killed a planned sale and redevelopment of the 45-acre site at 2910 Los Feliz Blvd. The former dinnerware and tile factory, which was closed two years ago, is on what is considered one of the largest contiguous parcels available for development in Northeast Los Angeles.

The property was identified by the state Department of Health Services as a hazardous waste site in 1984 and placed on the state Superfund list, a list of sites eligible for state cleanup funds.

Testing Needed

But state health officials say extensive testing is still needed before they can determine how much toxic waste is on the property and whether the materials pose a long-term threat to public health.

Wachs, who represents the area, has complained that the state has been slow to identify potential health hazards and to require a cleanup. So, in an unusual move, he asked the city attorney to begin an investigation of the site, even though no criminal charges are expected and it is unclear whether the city has jurisdiction.

"We have been very frustrated with the lack of attention and the inability to get answers from the state," Wachs said. "I think the city can move some mountains, get data, make things public and push the wheels faster."

Meeting Planned

Deputy City Atty. Steven Tekosky said he will meet with state and county health officials in the next two weeks to discuss the Franciscan site as a result of Wachs' request. Tekosky said the city usually gets involved only with toxic cleanups at sites that have been proved to pose imminent dangers. Since the city will look into the Franciscan situation, even though testing there is not complete, he said his staff would be "inventing the wheel as we go along."

State Department of Health Services spokesman Jim Smith said preliminary tests show the site does not present an "imminent danger." But he said his department, which is responsible for monitoring the cleanup of toxic dump sites throughout the state, "does not know the exact nature of the potential threat."

An attorney for the property owner, Franciscan Ceramics Inc., says the company has already conducted extensive tests that show the toxic materials "do not constitute any kind of health or environmental hazard."

Glazing sludge, a byproduct of the coloring glaze used for the ceramic products that had been produced at the site for nearly 80 years, was dumped into gullies and low spots at the western end of the property until 1972, says a Department of Health Services report. The sludge was discovered during a routine inspection by property owners to determine what could be built on the site.

Soil samples taken from the dumping areas show high concentrations of lead and zinc, Smith said. Extensive testing of underground soil is needed to find out "what's there, where it is and how much of it is there," he said.

Test Not Requested

So far, however, Franciscan Ceramics has not been asked to begin the state-required testing that must precede a cleanup. "I'm not sure when that will be," Smith said. If the company refuses to pay for the testing and cleanup, the state may do the work and bill the firm, he said.

Charles Ivie, an attorney representing Franciscan, said the company hired the International Technology Corp. to conduct soil studies on the property when the toxic wastes were discovered in 1984.

"Extensive tests were done to make sure that there has been no movement and no ground-water contamination" by hazardous materials, Ivie said. "They found no ground-water contamination."

But health department staff members have questioned the findings, noting that test wells drilled by International Technology found chromium concentrations in underground water that were higher than those found in several local wells away from the property, a state report said. The closest well field used for drinking water is 1.4 miles south, the report said.

Sealing of Wastes

Now, Ivie said, the company is preparing a plan to seal the toxic wastes with a "surface cap." That process involves digging a hole at the affected area and filling it with a mixture of soil and other materials to protect people from contamination on the surface. The method can only be used when there is no danger to ground water. Ivie said he did not know when the plan will be presented to the state agency for approval.

The company is unsure whether the cleanup will be done before the property is sold or by a purchaser as part of the property's eventual development, Ivie said. The company keeps a small office at the plant.

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