COMPTON — The operators of California's largest waste-oil recycling firm--DeMenno-Kerdoon Inc.--have pleaded no contest to criminal charges and agreed to pay a hefty $400,000 fine for transporting and handling nearly 50,000 gallons of toxic chemicals--mostly cleaning solvents discarded by gasoline stations--without a state permit.
Bruce DeMenno and Steven Kerdoon were also placed on probation for three years, while their firms, DeMenno-Kerdoon and Asbury Oil Co., were placed on probation for five years. Both corporations are based at 2000 N. Alameda St.
A fifth defendant, Asbury truck dispatcher Melvin Harper, is yet to have related charges against him decided, Deputy Dist. Atty. Herbert K. Furutani said last week.
In early April, a 17-count criminal complaint accused one or more of the defendants of breaking felony and misdemeanor hazardous-waste laws on six occasions between January, 1985, and February of this year. Waste shipments containing at least three toxic chemicals--in particular, a suspected carcinogen known as trichloroethane--were taken to the DeMenno-Kerdoon plant and apparently mixed with other products being recycled into lower-grade oil, a state official said. Along with the trichloroethane an ingredient common in degreasing solvents such as engine cleaners--the firm was accused of handling methylene chloride and nickel as well as some flammable substances also considered toxic.
"Waste oil has become a very easy medium to kind of dump stuff into and get rid of," said Stephen Lavinger, a toxic substance enforcement official with the California Department of Health Services.
For that reason, and the fact that a state and county task force of law enforcement and health investigators spent more than a year--and $71,448--gathering evidence, "this was a pretty significant case," he said. "Certainly, it's by far the most significant one we've taken statewide against an oil recycler."
Unsure of Health Risk
State officials acknowledge, however, that they are unsure whether the violations posed any particular threat to public health. Although some of the toxins may have been spilled around the recycling plant site, it appears that most were harmlessly combined with other waste materials.
"If you're dealing with stuff you're not really licensed to handle," Furutani said, "there's always a risk," at least to the workers involved. But, the prosecutor added, "I can't say unequivocally" that surrounding businesses or residents faced any danger.
Neither DeMenno nor Kerdoon returned a reporter's telephone call seeking their comment last week, and their attorney, Paul L. Riles, said he was not authorized to speak on their behalf.
Furutani declined to say whether he thought the firms' violations had been deliberate or inadvertent.
But, Lavinger said, "In this situation, definitely, it was more than, quote, accidental." He noted that state law provides civil penalties when toxins are transported, dumped or illegally handled purely by mistake.
No Effort to Contest
State officials also are uncertain about just how much toxic material was shipped, received or processed by the firms over the 14-month period mentioned in the charges. "We based our counts on a few truckloads that we knew for a fact that (DeMenno-Kerdoon) was not authorized" to accept, said Lavinger. "I don't think we fully knew" the total amount.
Lavinger stressed that the firms and officers made no effort to contest the charges in court when arraigned on April 9, and have been cooperating in cleaning up the plant site ever since.
Because of the speedy settlement and size of the fine, Superior Court Judge John P. Shook said he allowed DeMenno--president of the recycling firm--and Kerdoon--president of Asbury Oil--to avoid being fingerprinted and processed by the county Probation Department as most criminal defendants are required. However, they still must regularly report to probation officers.
Lavinger said DeMenno-Kerdoon's prosecution wasn't meant to discourage firms that recycle waste oil, which otherwise would be dumped in landfills, posing other environmental problems.
"I think the state really feels that it's in the best interest of the state to recycle used oil," Lavinger said, "but in a proper way that's environmentally safe."
Prosecutor Furutani said the $400,000 fine is considered stiff, although last year another firm was assessed $500,000--the largest monetary penalty yet for improper disposal of a toxic waste in the greater Los Angeles area. In January, an Orange County truck driver received the first jail term given in the state after admitting that he used another man's permit while transporting and disposing of hazardous wastes.
DeMenno-Kerdoon and the others will be allowed to pay their fine over the next four years, starting in October. The first installment of $25,000 is also supposed to include $10,000 each from DeMenno and Kerdoon personally.