Three years ago, the 583-acre BKK landfill in West Covina was one of the nation's busiest toxic waste dumps, a money machine for its owners and the city of West Covina, grossing $23 million in one year and paying $2.3 million in city taxes.
BKK Corp. was reaping the financial rewards of running the only toxic dump between the Mexican border and Casmalia, north of Santa Barbara. Waste poured in from 6,000 industries ranging from dry cleaning shops to chemical plants to oil refineries.
Every day, hundreds of trucks unloaded 2,500 tons of chemical waste, oil sludge, contaminated soil and other refuse too dangerous to be buried in ordinary landfills.
Although nearby residents complained of odors and suggested that the dump might be harming their health, state and local regulators repeatedly assured the public that the dump, off Azusa Avenue in the San Jose Hills, was safe.
The assurances continued almost up to the moment in July, 1984, when state health officials advised 21 families to flee their homes because potentially explosive methane gas had seeped into their neighborhood from the landfill.
Nine families were kept out of their homes for a month and 10 for nearly six months because the gas was found to contain a cancer-causing chemical, vinyl chloride.
"It was a nightmare," said Alan Kunihiro, a 38-year-old computer operations supervisor, recalling the evacuation of his wife, child and himself. "The police officers told us we had 10 minutes to get out of the house."
In the ensuing days, Kunihiro said, police blockaded the neighborhood, "guys in space suits" wandered through with instruments measuring gas, and he and his family lived in a hotel away from their home and belongings for six weeks.
The evacuations pushed public concern to outrage, intensified regulatory scrutiny and pressured BKK Corp. into pulling its dump out of the hazardous-waste business in November, 1984.
Today, BKK remains closed to hazardous waste but continues to take in large amounts of household and commercial trash.
Company officials last November signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of West Covina promising to end all disposal activities in 10 years as part of an agreement to find other uses for its dump and adjoining property.
Development is expected to focus on about 120 acres in the northwestern part of the dump where there has been no disposal activity.
Later this month, BKK Corp. will file two massive plans describing how it intends to keep the millions of tons of hazardous waste already buried in the landfill from polluting the region's air and water.
In its struggle to turn what would appear to be a major liability into an asset again, BKK Corp. simultaneously is trying:
- To close most of the dump within a year;
- To win permission to continue burying trash elsewhere on the dump for up to 10 years;
- To start developing hundreds of acres it owns next to the dump;
- To fight off lawsuits from 400 residents who claim that they were harmed by the dump and want millions of dollars in compensation;
- To expand an already elaborate system of hundreds of water and gas wells, drains, probes, flares and treatment systems to monitor, collect and destroy or neutralize landfill liquids and gas;
- To build a $7-million plant to turn the landfill gas into electrical energy for sale to Southern California Edison Co.,
- And to prove to the satisfaction of a Superior Court judge and half a dozen regulatory agencies that it is doing everything possible to safeguard the environment around the dump.
Meanwhile, the dump continues to bring in about $8 million a year in revenue. However, company officials say that does not cover cleanup costs, environmental controls and operating expenses. BKK Corp. won approval from the City Council last year to delay payment of a 10% city tax on gross receipts for a year and recently won city authorization to raise dumping fees.
Kenneth Kazarian, BKK Corp. president, said that 40 of the dump's 100 employees were laid off when toxic dumping ended in 1984. However, employment has increased again, he said, although many employees now are working on environmental problems rather than waste disposal.
Kazarian said that the dump is losing money, but he declined to provide specific figures, citing BKK Corp.'s status as a privately held, family-owned company.
The financial burdens imposed on the company are so heavy, Kazarian said, that some corporate advisers have suggested that the best course would be to walk away from the dump.
"But we wouldn't do that," Kazarian said. "We've got a lot of pride in this business. If we were hit-and-run artists, we might have considered it."
Regulators no longer offer rosy assessments of the dump's safety. Instead, they say, chemicals from the dump could leak into ground water and threaten public health.