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'Right-to-Know' Law Applied in Toxic Fire; Firm Charged

November 19, 1987|TERRY PRISTIN | Times Staff Writer

In the first prosecution under Los Angeles' 2-year-old "right-to-know" ordinance, a metal barrel recycling company and its owner were charged Wednesday with failing to supply the Fire Department with an inventory of the hazardous materials stored at the plant.

The city attorney's office said a firefighter was injured after he inhaled toxic fumes while battling a blaze June 12 at David Cooper Drum Co., 6920 S. Stanford Ave., in South-Central Los Angeles.

The firm's owner, David Cooper, 44, of Whittier, ignored two earlier requests to register stored hazardous materials with the Fire Department, Deputy City Atty. Steven R. Tekosky said.

It was later determined that the fire began in an area in which drums containing a number of hazardous chemicals were kept, including about 5,500 gallons of sodium hydroxide, the city attorney's office said. The fire created what the county Department of Health Services described as a "severe" hazardous materials emergency.

Tekosky said he intended to seek a jail term for Cooper, who faces a maximum six-month term and/or a $1,000 fine if convicted.

"I think this is the sort of case that deserves jail," the prosecutor said. "It was a cavalier and arrogant violation of the law."

Cooper, informed of the criminal complaint by a Times reporter, said he had no immediate comment.

Arraignment was set for Jan. 7 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Enacted in October, 1985, the "right-to-know" ordinance was designed to prevent the kind of problems encountered during a blaze the previous April at a Sun Valley chemical warehouse in which 56 people, including 52 firefighters, were made ill by toxic fumes.

The ordinance served as a model for state legislation requiring counties to implement registration systems, Tekosky said.

Battalion Chief Dean Cathey, a spokesman for the Fire Department, said that if firefighters know what chemicals may be involved when a fire breaks out, they can adjust their strategy accordingly.

"If we know, for example, that a particular chemical is water-reactive, we obviously wouldn't use water on it," Cathey said. "In some cases, we might let the material burn."

Deciding on Evacuation

The ordinance also helps authorities determine whether evacuation is necessary, Cathey said.

It took 26 fire companies about three hours to extinguish the fire at the drum company, the city attorney's office said. Firefighter Robert J. Munda was overcome by fumes and was taken to a hospital, where he was treated and released.

The city attorney's office said Cooper was routinely notified in October, 1986, about the new ordinance and was given a January, 1987, deadline for compliance. He was served with a notice of non-compliance last April but did not supply the data until Aug. 20.

Cathey said so far the department has received inventories from about 11,500 businesses out of a total of 15,000 to which the ordinance is applicable.

The data will eventually be stored in a computer data base, Cathey said. Currently, it is only available through printed files.

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