WHITTIER — Every day for nearly two decades, street-striping crews would return to the city yard on East Hadley Avenue and pour their old paint into one of two dirt trenches. Solvents and paint thinners used to clean spray guns were also dumped in the shallow trenches with gravel bottoms.
"It is a practice," said City Manager Tom Mauk, "that had gone on for many, many years. . . . It was just business as usual."
That is, until Feb. 6, when county health investigators inspected the maintenance yard and set in motion a series of events that culminated last week in charges against the city and four of its top officials of illegal dumping of hazardous materials.
Mauk and other Whittier officials said they were surprised--and puzzled--by Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's decision to file criminal charges in the case in light of the city's actions since the county Department of Health Services launched its investigation into city dumping of paint wastes and thinners.
Practice Halted at Once
The city, Mauk said, immediately halted the practice of dumping in the two-foot-deep trenches, and began disposing of the paint wastes in 55-gallon drums that are now taken away by licensed hazardous waste haulers.
At the county's request, Mauk said, the city has also spent more than $8,000 to test the soil around the two trenches, and has "cooperated fully" with Reiner's office and the county health department during the seven-month investigation.
"That's why the charges just don't make sense," Mauk said in an interview this week.
Marcia Strickland, the deputy district attorney handling the case, said criminal charges were filed because of the potential health threat posed by the dumping. She acknowledged that the city has cooperated on the matter, but added that such cooperation is normally taken into consideration in the punishment and sentencing phase of a case, not in the filing of charges.
"The fact remains," she added, "that a crime was there and it was ongoing."
The city was charged with a felony count of unlawfully disposing of hazardous wastes. A conviction carries a maximum fine of $50,000 for each day of the alleged violations and covers a period of three years.
Charged with a misdemeanor count, covering the same conduct, were Louis Sandoval, 51, Whittier's director of public services; Vergil Haight, 60, city director of public works; Ralph Williams, 60, the city's street and maintenance superintendent, and David Bradbury, 56, the mechanical superintendent. The four face a possible sentence of one year in jail in addition to small fines if convicted.
Arraignment has been set for Oct. 2 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
None of the four officials faces any administrative or disciplinary action by city, Mauk said.
An anonymous caller first tipped county health officials about the dumping practices and the paint trench in the city yard at 12016 E. Hadley. A second trench, which had been abandoned several years ago and paved over, was discovered shortly after the investigation began. The open trenches, both about 2 feet wide and 5 feet long, are about 25 feet apart.
Mauk said the quantity of paint wastes dumped in the pits was "relatively minor, about a half-gallon every couple of days."
But according to the criminal complaint, city employees have dumped countless gallons of the wastes into the pit since the mid-1960s, allowing potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals and solvents to seep into the soil.
The primary concern, Strickland said, was contamination of the aquifer. But tests of water wells in the area have so far showed no sign of contamination, she said.
Another concern, she said, was the volatile nature of the dumped solvents. Over time, trapped in the soil, the chemicals could have formed a gas that might explode if it came in contact with a spark from a piece of heavy equipment in the city yard, she said.
Several Whittier officials, including Mayor Eugene Chandler, were upset over the way the case was publicized by Reiner's office. "The way it sounds, the city has been backing large trucks up and dumping large quantities of toxics at 2 o'clock in the morning," Chandler said. "That's just not the case. . . .