SANTA FE SPRINGS — Hovering 500 feet above Santa Fe Springs in a Hughes 500 helicopter last week, Battalion Chief LeRoy Kehret saw what appeared to be a liquid leaking onto the ground between two tanks at an oil refinery.
He noted it and would later ask a fire inspector to investigate.
"We need to find out what it is. If it's water, then it's no big thing," Kehret said.
In a city where 85% of the land is zoned for industry, the possibility of having accidental--and intentional--leaks, spills and dumping of hazardous materials is all too real.
The concern over that possibility has been deep enough that the Santa Fe Springs Fire Department began a four-month pilot program in April of inspecting key industries and open stretches of land in the city from the air.
The information culled from the monthly flights, now in their third month, is mainly used to help firefighters map strategy for fighting future fires at chemical plants, refineries and other industrial sites, said Fire Chief Robert C. Wilson.
But the flights will also help firefighters keep tabs on such activities as the stockpiling of 55-gallon drums containing hazardous materials and illegal dumping in sparsely populated areas.
So far, the aerial searches have not found any serious problems. But Wilson said that the city has had incidents of illegal dumping of hazardous materials in the past, and they appear to be on the increase.
"It's a real problem to get rid of" hazardous materials, Wilson said, adding that the closest dump is in Santa Barbara County. "It has become so expensive that people are sitting on it rather than getting rid of it."
Fire officials, who take turns going aloft in the copter, are looking for stains left on concrete, hoses entering flood control channels and any strange discharges onto the ground.
The increase in illegal hazardous waste disposal led the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to start a similar program in April.
Gift From State
The state gave the sheriff's department a helicopter to be used exclusively for searching out illegal dumps and dumping of hazardous materials, said Sgt. Mike Whitman, coordinator of the hazardous materials surveillance program.
"We found there was a radical increase of illegal dumping in 1985 from 1984," Whitman said. In 1985, there were 298 incidents related to hazardous materials and 119 of those were illegal dumps. He said the incidents rose 75% over 1984.
Besides helping firefighters monitor possible illegal activity, Kehret said, the flights also provide fire officials with a "bird's eye view" of the city and help them see things they could not normally see on a drive-by or personal inspection.
"From a chopper, the city is laid below you. It's a perspective you couldn't pick up during an inspection," said Kehret, who trains new firefighters.
Wilson said that the first time he went up in the helicopter he didn't know what to expect. "I never realized what a view you did get. I got real enthused about it. It's amazing what you see behind buildings."
Not Many in State
The city created the program--one of a handful in the state--by allocating one hour of its helicopter patrol time to the aerial inspections, said Fred Latham, assistant city manager.
"We felt the problems of environmental hazards were very important in Santa Fe Springs," Latham said.
Santa Fe Springs gets together with Norwalk, La Mirada, Pico Rivera and South El Monte to purchase each month about 300 hours of daily helicopter patrol time from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The city, which gets approximately 30 hours of this service a month, pays about $50,000 a year.
The idea for aerial checks for hazardous material was first suggested last year by then-Councilman Luis Escontrias.
"I was looking at the scope of the problem and how best to address it," said Escontrias, who made arrangements last year to test the idea by doing a trial run with Battalion Chief Norbert Schnabel. "It's a good approach to go up by helicopter. It is not only useful for policing but also for preventive" work, he said.
In the Lead
Santa Fe Springs is a leader among cities in sending up a helicopter with the specific intention of looking for illegal dumping and spilling of hazardous materials. Other agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Fire Department, use helicopters to transport accident victims and to do controlled brush burns, but if they find illegal disposal of hazardous materials it is incidental.
Whitman of the sheriff's department said the program is a pioneering concept whose time has come.
"The idea was to get an edge on" small generators who illegally dispose of hazardous materials, Whitman said. "We need to stop the stuff from getting in the environment."
The sheriff's unit will search Los Angeles County grid by grid, beginning in the remote brush areas, Whitman said. "If a dump occurs, hopefully we can clean it up before it contaminates the environment."