WHITTIER — One day last summer, hundreds of Whittier residents stopped by the city's maintenance yard to drop off cans of old paint, weed killer and other chemicals that had been sitting around the house.
It was the city's first household toxic waste roundup, and public works officials declared the event a success in their report to the City Council a few weeks later.
But there also were a few problems that officials failed to mention.
The waste-disposal contractor hired by the city mistakenly mixed several types of potent nitric acid in a 55-gallon drum, creating a small cloud of gas. The fumes burned the contractor's face and arms. The building on the grounds was evacuated. The Fire Department was called.
City officials also apparently violated a legal requirement that the accident be reported to the state. But the state found out about it, and Whittier now faces a $30,000 fine by the state Department of Health Services.
'One of Those Things'
"This is just one of those things that doesn't happen very often," said Jim Marxen, a spokesman for the department's toxics division.
Tom Bayles, Whittier's hazardous waste coordinator, said city officials believed the violation had been properly reported because the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hazardous materials team handled the accident.
"The city surely doesn't feel the penalties and the alleged violations are appropriate at all," Bayles said.
Because it was the city's first experience with hazardous-waste disposal, he said, "we did rely heavily on the experience of the contractor," Omega Recovery Services of Whittier. The city paid Omega about $60,000 to receive and dispose of 128 drums of waste that an estimated 400 residents dropped off at the city's yard at 12016 Hadley St.
City and state health officials met Wednesday to discuss the $30,000 fine, the maximum the state can impose for the violation. During the meeting, Marxen said, the city asked for leniency and blamed the contractor for the accident.
"Our position was we have a law to enforce and we can't look the other way," Marxen said. "In this case, it all goes back to the city because they are the ones who had legal permission to dispose of the wastes."
City Manager Thomas G. Mauk, who attended the hearing, was not available for comment.
Had State Permit
Before holding the hazardous-waste-disposal day June 18, the city obtained a state permit to collect the chemicals. Under conditions of the permit, the city was required to hire a licensed hazardous-waste-disposal contractor, who was to wear protective clothing and keep collected wastes separated. The state also was to be notified within 15 days of any accidents.
Omega Recovery Services is licensed. But Omega's president, Dennis O'Meara, who suffered face and arm burns as he supervised the disposal, violated the other three conditions and the city is being held responsible, Marxen said. O'Meara could not be reached for comment.
The state began investigating the accident last month after a citizen familiar with hazardous wastes reported it to the Department of Health Services, Marxen said.