In the second case for a new task force formed to boost local prosecutions of violations of hazardous waste laws, a federal grand jury has indicted two California businesses and a truck driver on charges of dumping sulfuric acid into a culvert leading into an ecologically sensitive estuary in Oceanside.
The indictment alleges that Louis Henry Hall Jr., a driver employed by a Hanford-based fertilizer distributor, violated the federal Clean Water Act in March when he dumped sulfuric acid into a culvert that drains into the Santa Margarita Estuary, a sprawling wetland on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.
Hall, 41, a resident of Laton, also is charged with two counts of making false statements--to game wardens who happened upon the alleged dumping episode and to federal agents investigating the case.
Also named in the indictment are Hall's employer, Verdegaal Bros. Inc., and Agriculture Installations Inc., an Oxnard firm that ordered a tanker truck full of sulfuric acid for use on tomato fields next to the estuary.
Sulfuric acid, commonly used in a highly diluted form to reduce the alkalinity of soil in agricultural fields, is highly toxic in concentrated levels. Inhalation of sulfuric acid mists can cause damage to the respiratory system. The substance can kill fish and vegetation and is considered a threat to two species of endangered birds that breed at the federally managed estuary.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles S. Crandall said the case is the second to grow from investigations conducted by San Diego's Hazardous Waste Task Force, a criminal investigative group composed of representatives from the FBI, the county district attorney's office and environmental regulatory agencies.
Formed in June, the task force is designed to better coordinate enforcement of state and federal laws regulating the use and disposal of toxic wastes. Crandall said the approach, modeled loosely after a hazardous waste strike force in Los Angeles, aims to blend the investigative talents of the FBI with the technical know-how of agencies like the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, which are conversant in hazardous materials and their effects but may lack experience in surveillance and other investigatory tactics.
"It's an effort to formalize the investigation of these hazardous waste cases and really get the most out of all the agencies involved," said Crandall, who, along with Deputy Dist. Atty. Josephine A. Keirnan, provides legal advice to the task force. "We've got high hopes for its potential."
The first product of the group's labors emerged in July when a nine-count indictment was issued against the operators of a San Marcos dairy for discharging dairy waste into a creek.
Violation of Act Alleged
The indictment alleges that Jacob Wilgenburg, the dairy's owner, and its manager, Edward Wilgenburg, violated the federal Clean Water Act by authorizing seven illegal discharges of dairy waste from their 500-cow farm. The runoff is heavily contaminated with bovine feces, urine and other substances, and can carry viruses dangerous to humans.
In the more recent case, Agriculture Installations allegedly ordered a truck full of sulfuric acid from Verdegaal Bros. in order to refill two storage tanks the company maintains next to tomato fields near the estuary. Agriculture Installations operates an irrigation and fertilizer system on the fields, which are leased from the U.S. Marine Corps.
Prosecutors say that, after filling the storage tanks, Hall emptied the remaining sulfuric acid--at a concentration of 98%--in his truck into a culvert leading to the Santa Margarita Estuary and, ultimately, the ocean.
U.S. Atty. Peter K. Nunez said the action represents a violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which requires dischargers to obtain permits from federal and state pollution control officials for any materials deposited into the nation's waterways.
In addition, Nunez said Hall has been charged with two counts of making false statements. When federal game wardens happened upon the alleged dumping on March 25, Hall said he was turning his truck around. Later, he told investigators that he had merely dumped 10 gallons of water used to flush his tank valves.
The Santa Margarita Estuary is about four miles north of downtown Oceanside between Interstate 5 and the Pacific Ocean. One of only two estuaries remaining in San Diego County, it is frequented by abundant wildlife, including the California least tern and the light-footed clapper rail, two birds on the federal Endangered Species List.
Crandall said there is no evidence to date of what impact the dumping may have had on the birds, fish or vegetation in the estuary. But he noted that, at a minimum, damage to the birds' habitat and to the estuarine food chain was likely.
If convicted, Hall faces a maximum penalty of 13 years in prison and fines as high as $750,000. Verdegaal faces a maximum fine of $500,000, while Agriculture Installations could be forced to pay as much as $100,000 in fines.