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DWP Pays Fine, Steps Up PCB Phase-Out : Settlement Resolves EPA Complaint Citing Leakage of Toxic Chemical at 15 Locations

November 10, 1986|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is accelerating the phase-out of electrical equipment containing toxic PCBs as part of a settlement of a federal complaint citing PCB leakage and other violations at DWP installations in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Under terms of the settlement, the DWP also paid a penalty of $50,000 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which charged the utility late last year with numerous violations of rules regarding PCB disposal, storage and record-keeping.

Though opting to settle rather than to fight the charges, DWP officials have characterized the violations as minor and the inspections that led to the complaint "as a bit of a witch hunt."

EPA officials said last week that the utility was not picked on and that they handled the case as they do all others.

The settlement, reached in August, does not change DWP's plans to voluntarily eliminate by 1989 more than 100,000 pieces of equipment containing PCBs, officials said. However, the agreement commits the utility to phasing out one category of equipment--PCB regulators--at several distributing stations by the end of 1987, which is sooner than originally planned.

PCBs--short for polychlorinated biphenyls--are heat-resistant compounds that for decades were added to cooling oil to prevent fires in heavy machinery and electrical-distribution equipment, such as the transformers and capacitors installed on utility poles.

In recent years, the EPA has classified PCBs as a probable human carcinogen and has banned their manufacture.

But the chemical is widespread and is found at detectable levels in the fat of nearly all Americans. And millions of pounds are still in use in electrical equipment.

In addition to banning further manufacture of PCBs, the EPA rules require the phase-out of some PCB equipment and require that PCB devices that break down be replaced by devices not using the substance. The rules also govern how PCB equipment is to be stored and disposed of and require that careful inventory records be kept of it.

The EPA originally proposed a $251,000 penalty in the 40-count complaint it served on the city last December. In agreeing to pay a penalty of $50,000, DWP did not admit violating rules on PCBs.

Fifteen counts involved minor PCB leakage from dozens of pieces of equipment at 15 locations. The leaks were discovered during EPA inspections conducted in June, 1985.

Leaks were found at these six installations in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys: DWP maintenance and storage yards at 6000 Van Nuys Blvd. and 14401 Saticoy St. in Van Nuys; distributing stations at 14320 Aetna St. in Van Nuys and at 4276 Coldwater Canyon Ave. in Studio City; the Sylmar Converter Station at 13201 Sepulveda Blvd. in Sylmar, and the Castaic Power Plant on Templin Highway in Castaic.

The leaked oil, which DWP officials said was cleaned up, contained PCB concentrations of 50 to several hundred thousand parts per million, according to DWP and EPA officials. Most of the leaks were from capacitors, regulators and transformers, although leakage at the Van Nuys Boulevard yard was from storage drums containing PCB oil, according to the complaint.

Administrative Violations

Many of the other 25 counts involved lack of required inventory records and failure to properly mark PCB equipment and storage areas.

According to one count, an area at the Saticoy Street yard used to store PCB equipment before its disposal did not have an adequate floor, roof, walls or curbing for containment of spills. Another count related to the Van Nuys Boulevard yard's failure to remove within a one-year deadline junked PCB capacitors being stored there pending final disposal.

DWP officials have stressed that the leakage was minute and was confined to department installations that are not publicly accessible. There "wasn't and isn't" any threat to public health, Norman E. Nichols, DWP assistant general manager for power, told the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, the department's policy-making board, at a meeting in August.

'Bit of a Witch Hunt'

"My candid impression of the whole exercise was that it was a bit of a witch hunt," Nichols told the commissioners, according to a tape of the meeting.

"No one, to our knowledge, has been cited for the types of record-keeping deficiencies that they allege that we had, and certainly no one has been cited for seepage which, in the total, amounted to . . . less than 20 ounces in some several different sites," Nichols said.

"No one has been subjected to that level of scrutiny by EPA," he complained.

But EPA officials said they were no harder on the DWP than on anyone else.

"Everything that we did to L.A. was just totally the norm," said David McFadden, assistant regional counsel with the EPA in San Francisco.

'Not Singled Out'

"They were not singled out," said McFadden. "We get everybody for those violations, and they all complain."

EPA officials neither confirmed nor disputed the estimate of 20 ounces leaked.

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