When a cleanup crew hired by Rancho Palos Verdes moved in a few days ago to forcibly clear Edwin Roth's corner property on Dauntless Drive, they found that Roth and his wife, Louise, had collected enough trash to fill five dump trucks and four 40-cubic-yard dumpsters.
"It's easily over 200 cubic yards of material," said Greg Fuz, city code enforcement officer. The bulk of it was wood and other combustible materials, he said.
There also was a collection of auto parts, old appliances--including a discarded refrigerator with the door still on it--cartons, crates, boxes, papers, garden tools, metal cans, the residue of vegetables that had been strewn on the ground as compost and three inoperable cars.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's bomb squad was called in after crystalized picric acid, a potentially explosive material commonly used in etching, was found in the garage, which one officer said "was full of junk, from floor to ceiling." The two-man team took the one-pound jar to a nearby field and detonated it.
"It made a pretty big noise," said bomb technician Sgt. Dale Underwood. The acid could have exploded if the jar had been dropped or had fallen over, Underwood said.
A Torrance firm specializing in toxic waste removal also was hired to dispose of about 55 gallons of corrosive liquids--including sulfuric acid and ammonium hydroxide--officially designated as hazardous waste.
"It was like walking into a junkyard," said Cari Cooper, city administrative analyst, after visiting the site. "These are people that most of us would call pack rats. They just save everything for a very long time."
In all, eight people worked for about five days at the Roth home, located on a tree-lined street in Seaview, a neighborhood of well-maintained, $200,000 to $300,000 homes developed in the 1960s that overlooks the Pacific east of the Portuguese Bend landslide.
The three cars, which the Roths will be able to recover after paying towing and storage charges, were taken away by the Sheriff's Department.
Several officials said it was the worst property-maintenance problem they had ever seen in Rancho Palos Verdes, a city that prides itself on strict code enforcement. Last year, the city achieved notoriety when it filed misdemeanor charges against a resident for building a shed too close to his property line. The city dropped the charges after the resident made his shed narrower.
Acknowledging that the Dauntless Drive problem has existed since the Roths moved into their house in the late '60s, Fuz said it has persisted not because city officials had ignored it but because separate efforts by county Health and Fire departments and the city had not produced a solution. Officials said those efforts have included inspections, warnings, citations, at least one fine, and a 1985 court judgment, fine and jail sentence that the Roths are appealing.
"It got better, then it deteriorated," Fuz said. "They would clean it up to make it passable" but within a year there would be more complaints.
The cleanup is a joint effort of the county and the city under a Rancho Palos Verdes ordinance that gives the city authority to compel a resident to eliminate a public nuisance.
The City Council on March 17 gave the Roths until March 31 to clean up their property, which they failed to do. The city then moved in to do the work, and Cooper said officials expect to charge the Roths between $10,000 and $20,000. She said that $5,000 will be charged for the hazardous chemical disposal alone. If the money is not paid, a lien will be put on the property, she said.
Some neighbors said Roth concealed most of the materials behind fences, thick pine trees and a makeshift stone wall. Although many neighbors said they were aware of the problem, even they were surprised at how much was removed.
However, one neighbor said there was no mystery about the accumulation of debris, and although she praised the city for taking action, she said it should be been done sooner.
"This has been a 17-year frustration" that about 15 neighbors have complained about for years, said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
Roth would not talk to a reporter, saying only, "There's nothing available at this time." His attorney in the appeals case also declined comment.
According to county health inspector Bert Nelson, the Roths were fined $75 in December, 1982, because of an accumulation of lumber that had become infested with rodents.
In September, 1985, the Roths were each sentenced to 150 days in jail, which was suspended in favor of two years of probation, and fined $510 each after being convicted of violating the county Health and Safety Code. The sentence was delayed when the Roths appealed, and the case is not expected to be heard for three or four months, according to the district attorney's office.