DOWNEY — The owner of an auto dealership, which is under investigation on suspicion of illegally discharging hazardous wastes, said this week he did not know how liquids seeped into the ground behind his service shop.
But Russell Nowling, owner of Nowling Oldsmobile, 7514 E. Firestone Blvd., said he is arranging to have an environmental specialist clean up the liquids.
"I'm sorry it happened and I'm going to get it cleaned up as fast as I can," Nowling said.
He said his employees indicated they had not dumped hazardous liquids behind the shop.
Soil Samples Taken
County health officials have taken soil samples, which will be analyzed in the next two weeks, said Walter Uroff, a hazardous-waste specialist with the county Department of Health Services.
A decision on whether to seek criminal prosecution will not be made until the tests are completed, Uroff said. A misdemeanor charge of illegally dumping low-level hazardous waste, such as used motor oil and antifreeze, is punishable by a fine of $1,000 to $25,000 each day a violation occurred.
While the liquids pose little threat to passers-by, authorities fear they could pollute ground water.
Downey officials earlier this week took test samples from a municipal water well 700 feet from the dealership, said William A. Ralph, public works director.
"Whenever you have any spill of any kind of size anywhere near a well you should immediately start taking tests," Ralph said. "Hopefully it's not a problem, and probably it isn't."
Well May Be Closed
The Burns Avenue well south of the dealership was tested last August and September and no contamination was found, Ralph said. The well is one of 23 in Downey's municipal water system. It draws water from depths ranging from 372 feet to 620 feet. Ralph said the city is considering closing the well, pending the test results, except for emergency uses, such as fighting fires.
Downey was forced to close four wells last year because of unrelated contamination.
State and county officials began investigating the Nowling dealership after receiving a tip from a Downey resident.
County health officials ordered Nowling to stop discharging the liquids, to clean up the ground behind the shop and to properly dispose of any contaminated soil.
"The most we're looking at is waste oils and grease and perhaps some solvents," investigating officer Peter Torres said. "It's not so much a threat to human beings as much as to the environment, to animals."
Used oil and antifreeze are considered low-level hazardous wastes and are usually recycled.
Nowling said a contractor picks up used oil and other liquid wastes from his service center.
"All of our waste oil has been going out of here, contracted out," he said.
But investigators discovered a pipe that ran from a back wall of the service center's transmission and lube area to a dirt plot behind the shop. Inside the shop, a funnel was attached to the pipe.
Ground Was Soaked
Liquid was dripping from the pipe last week. The ground below was soaked. In another part of the dealership, shallow gullies appeared to be saturated with oil. The gullies passed under a fence and into the dirt area.
Nowling said that to his knowledge no oil, antifreeze or other hazardous liquids were dumped from the pipe or into the gullies. He said the gullies were dug to keep rain water from collecting on the lot. He said some oil may have seeped from used cars that are sometimes in the lot.
Nowling said he did not know when the pipe was installed, why it was installed or whether it was used.
The auto dealer said he has sought an estimate to clean up the liquids.
"I've been negligent to the point of not realizing what I did but I'm going as fast as I can to get it cleaned up," Nowling said. "We're not going to fool around. We're not going to sit on it."