MONTEREY PARK — Within a few months, treasurers of some of the nation's largest corporations will write checks for hundreds of thousands--and in a few cases--millions of dollars to help pay for the cleanup of a closed dump in Monterey Park.
The checks, written to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health Services by 51 companies and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, will total more than $21.3 million. They will be followed over the next 3 years by payments of more than $9.6 million.
At the same time, a group composed of 60 companies and the Southern California Rapid Transit District will hire experts and spend $35.9 million to take over daily management of environmental controls at the dump site.
But as large as these amounts are--and this is one of the largest monetary settlements in the history of the EPA's toxic cleanup program nationwide--the flow of money to protect public health from hazardous waste at the Operating Industries Inc. landfill is just beginning.
Plan to Pursue Claims
EPA officials say they plan to pursue claims against thousands of companies that shipped waste to the dump. Companies that have already agreed to spend millions for the initial stages of the cleanup can expect further demands from the EPA as the work proceeds.
Lisa Haage, EPA regional counsel, said administrative orders will be issued early this year to compel cleanup participation by a number of companies that shipped large volumes of hazardous waste to the dump, but were not part of the initial settlement. Companies that refuse to comply will be taken to court, she said, and they could be ordered to pay up to three times the cost of cleanup work done in their behalf.
But some of the companies identified by the EPA as responsible for hazardous waste at OII say they cannot afford to pay the amounts demanded by the agency.
An executive for a company that was asked to pay $200,000 said his business, which has 100 employees, is in no position to write a check that size.
The businessman, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his company be identified, said the burden is especially hard to accept because the company did nothing improper. He said it disposed only of waste that OII was legally authorized to receive. The executive said he recognizes that under the federal Superfund law a company is responsible for its hazardous waste even after the waste has been legally disposed of in a dump. But, he said, the EPA should make allowances for the financial burden on small companies.
Jeff Jerome, vice president of Southwest Processors Inc. in Vernon, said his company, which makes cattle feed out of animal fat and vegetable oil, faces a demand for payment from the EPA of $400,000.
Jerome said his company sent sludge, clay and other harmless waste to the landfill, but because the EPA is basing assessments on waste volume without regard to the content of the waste, his company's bill is enormous.
Banks are unwilling to loan money for that sort of expense, Jerome said, and so far his insurer has refused to acknowledge liability.
'We Don't Have the Money'
Simply put, Jerome said, "our problem is that we don't have the money."
Bill Donahoe, who owns Vernon Truck Wash, said the EPA has asked his company, which has 52 employees, to pay more than $300,000. OII records indicate that the company sent 470,000 gallons of waste to the dump, but Donahoe said it was harmless mud and sludge washed off trucks.
Donahoe said he has had trouble reaching EPA officials to present his argument that his waste was not hazardous. He said he has already been forced to spend $2,500 to prepare technical reports for the EPA and will have to hire an attorney to defend himself in court if the agency presses its demands.
"All I know is that if they sue me (and win), they've got themselves a truck wash," Donahoe said.
Haage said there is a public misconception that only materials that "sound toxic" are classified as hazardous waste. Actually, she said, the list is much broader, and includes solvents used to wash planes and trucks.
Haage said that while some types of hazardous waste may be more harmful than others, it is often impractical to differentiate in assessing liability.
She said the cash settlements in the OII dumping have been based on the volume of hazardous waste, regardless of its toxicity.
Haage said there is no doubt that the ability to pay will be a problem for some companies. "OII is a very expensive site," she said.
At a press conference last month, Daniel McGovern, EPA regional administrator, described OII as "one of the most complex and contaminated sites in the nation."