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Politicians Hitch Easy Ride on Issue of Toxics on Roads

October 18, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer and

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley held a City Hall news conference last week to announce that he had negotiated an agreement with the U. S. Department of Defense to keep highly toxic rocket fuel off the congested Ventura Freeway.

At the same time Tuesday, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda) was dispatching aides to tell the news media in Los Angeles that the California Highway Patrol was removing the Ventura Freeway as a designated route for the transport of rocket fuel to Vandenberg Air Force Base.

On the same day in Washington, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) was preparing to testify about the rocket-fuel shipments before a House subcommittee.

Lack of Risk

In the weeks following disclosure in The Times that rocket fuel trucked to Vandenberg passed through metropolitan Los Angeles and other communities, elected officials at the city, county, state and federal levels seemed to be outdoing one another to respond to the hazard.

They did so, say many of those involved, because the situation offered a rare combination: an issue of public safety presenting the opportunity for a relatively easy fix and a singular lack of political risk in acting forcefully.

"It is the kind of thing where people don't have to stick their toe into the water to see if the water's fine," said Kam Kuwata, a California political consultant. "They know they can jump in. The number of elected officials that jumped in demonstrates that."

Katz agreed. "Everyone in the world is jumping on an issue that looks like a no-lose political situation," he said. "There is no one advocating the rocket-fuel side."

No one faulted the politicians for demanding action in the face of possible danger to the public. But the list of those drafting legislation, holding hearings, testifying before government committees and issuing news releases reads like a Who's Who of Los Angeles officeholders, especially those who may seek higher office.

At last count, those involved included five Los Angeles City Council members, the mayor, City Atty. James K. Hahn, three Los Angeles County supervisors, Katz and six congressmen. Among them are three prospective 1989 mayoral candidates--Bradley, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and Hahn.

Bhopal Recalled

Hearings were held or scheduled by county and state officials to examine the broad safety questions involved in transporting hazardous chemicals through metropolitan areas. A House subcommittee examining the issue is to hold a hearing Monday in Los Angeles.

Officials interviewed last week emphasized that they had responded to a real danger, with some recalling the tragedy in Bhopal, India, when deadly gas leaked from a Union Carbide pesticide plant. The December, 1984, accident killed an estimated 2,000 people and injured nearly 50,000.

By Friday, the competing interests had led to tension. Katz, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee and is head of a new Assembly committee that will explore the dangers of transporting hazardous materials, expressed anger that a House subcommittee had refused to schedule him as a witness at Monday's hearing.

"We were told they put no local elected officials on the agenda," Katz said. "You talk about a road show to look involved. That's what the congressional folks are doing."

Others familiar with the rocket fuel issue said last week that they find the swift involvement of officials somewhat curious. The fuel destined for Vandenberg, nitrogen tetroxide, had been transported on the Ventura Freeway for years. The Times reported that in 1983 and, with the exception of a few inquiries, it drew little attention.

"The problem of hazardous waste transportation has been around for a long time and it took a Los Angeles Times story to get these guys moving," a senior staffer for a Los Angeles lawmaker who requested anonymity said of the later Times report. "It's incumbent on elected officials to ask these questions."

Legislators or their spokesmen said they had no previous knowledge that rocket fuel was being shipped through the Los Angeles area on the Ventura Freeway. It was also shipped by freeways through Pasadena and Glendale, but the official outcry was by the far the loudest from the City of Los Angeles.

'Not Aware'

"We were not aware," said Fred MacFarlane, Bradley's press secretary. "Nobody was, to the best of my knowledge."

"Unfortunately, it took a Los Angeles Times article to wake everybody up," said Yaroslavsky, who was among the first to rally to the cause. He urged state and federal officials to reroute the rocket fuel from the Ventura Freeway two days after the article appeared on the front page Sept. 20. "The local people who learned about it for the first time came unglued."

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