Although the freshly painted trim outside his house is bright blue, Martin Luyben is seeing red these days over the city of Long Beach's reaction to a $100 home-maintenance project.
Luyben has been ordered to pay $3,094 for the cost of a professional hazardous materials crew sent by the city to clean stains from the curb near his house, where paint-tainted water collected after Luyben's painter washed off his brush.
"They came in here in their moon suits, like something out of 'Ghostbusters,' " said the 28-year-old Blackthorne Avenue resident. "They were wearing masks and gowns like they were getting ready for surgery."
Luyben vows that he will not pay the bill, which he received from the city in June.
It's not so much the money, he said (though there are things he'd rather do with the $3,000). It's the principle.
He said the tiny amount of water-based paint that washed into the street's gutter from the brush was nontoxic and barely visible. And besides, he said, city officials never bothered to ask him to clean it up before sending in the heavy artillery.
But adamant City Hall leaders say they are prepared to use their legal muscle to collect the money.
Officials said they acted properly by quickly stopping the blue paint from trickling into the city's storm drain system, which empties into the city's waterfront. Because of the potential danger, they said, they did not have time to get Luyben to clean the gutter.
The paint dispute began May 5 when Luyben said he paid a handyman $100 to touch up the wood trim with a half-full can of latex paint from his garage.
When the paint ran out, the painter washed off his brush in the driveway with a garden hose. The bluish-colored water flowed out of the driveway and about 100 yards down the street's gutter, Luyben said.
Luyben said he returned home from his job at his family-run mortuary that evening and was firing up the back yard barbecue when professional toxic-waste removers called in by the city showed up.
The five-member cleanup crew never asked what the substance in the gutter was, Luyben said.
In fact, he said, they said nothing to him at all, except to ask to borrow his garden hose.
"All the neighbors came out to watch. They couldn't believe what was happening."
Diana M. Bonta, director of the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services, said an anonymous caller notified authorities about the pale blue slick, which had spread 2 1/2 blocks by the time the call came in. She said city inspectors feared that toxic, oil-based paint had been dumped into Luyben's gutter.
"We're sensitive to the environment because we're a coastal city," Deputy City Manager John H. Williams said. "We want to protect the integrity of the water in the bay here."
Luyben said he could not believe it when he got the city's detailed bill about a month after the paint job. It itemized every glove, the truck and the vacuum pump used by the city-contracted hazardous materials ("hazmat") team. According to Luyben, city officials told him not to worry about paying the bill when he telephoned them the next day to complain.
"I called the city manager and he started laughing hysterically. He said, 'Don't lose any sleep on this--we'll get it taken care of,' " Luyben said.
City Manager James Hankla could not be reached for comment. But other officials denied laughing at the incident. They said the city has no intention of paying for Luyben's cleanup out of municipal funds--although they have asked the cleanup company to recalculate the bill and reduce it by about $500.
'The Mistake Was His'
"I feel bad about his predicament. But the mistake was his, not the city's," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "Either he pays or the rest of the citizens do. I can't see having the rest of the taxpayers pay for it. If he doesn't pay it . . . it will go to the city attorney."
Bonta of the health department said state law requires inspectors to consider "any colored material in a gutter" as hazardous waste until it is satisfactorily identified. Luyben's vacuumed-up paint was not analyzed in a laboratory because of the city's desire to keep his cleanup bill down, she said.
But Kell and Bonta said Luyben's expensive experience has caused Long Beach to re-evaluate its procedure for hiring private "hazmat" crews. Future cleanup contracts will be awarded through a different bidding process, they said.
Back on Blackthorne Avenue, however, some still believe that the city was giving Luyben's paintbrush complaint the brushoff.
Delivery truck driver Jim Obbema characterized the city's cleanup efforts as overkill. "It's sad the little guy always ends up paying," Obbema said.