DOWNEY — County Supervisor Pete Schabarum this week accused Norwalk Assemblyman Bob Epple and Downey Councilman Roy L. Paul of being demagogues for opposing a county pesticide warehouse that is under construction near Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center.
"A couple of local politicians, desperately seeking some kind of issue to justify reelection, have jumped on the construction of a county facility and have repeatedly described it as some kind of chamber of horrors," Schabarum told the Downey Rotary Club during a Tuesday luncheon meeting at the Rio Hondo Country Club.
During his brief speech, Schabarum reiterated his support for the facility and his belief that it will operate safely on Downey's western border with South Gate.
"It is shocking in the extreme to see persons given the trust imposed by elective office, abandoning that trust in an orgy of firing up imaginations with untruths and exaggeration," he said.
Neither Epple nor Paul attended the luncheon. But in separate interviews later, they denied that reelection was their motive in opposing the facility. Epple will be up for reelection in November, 1990, while Paul must run in June to retain his seat. They also denied Schabarum's allegation that they spread inaccurate information to foment opposition to the facility.
Schabarum could not specifically identify misstatements by Epple or Paul.
Epple and Paul fired back, accusing the county of failing to properly notify city officials and the public of its plans to store pesticides at the site.
"The only reason this has come up is that Mr. Schabarum's county staff has misled the public about the presence of any toxic material at the (warehouse)," Epple said.
Said Paul: "I'm not the one who created the issue by hiding it from the public. It's not a political issue. It's a safety, health issue."
Epple and Paul maintain that the warehouse should be built elsewhere, away from residential neighborhoods and businesses.
Last August, Paul and other Downey officials said they were surprised to learn that construction had already begun on the 26,900-square-foot laboratory and adjoining warehouse. It is being built on a 1.68-acre parcel of county land near the southwest corner of Imperial Highway and Garfield Avenue.
The office of the county Agricultural Commissioner/Department of Weights will move from an aging facility in Pico Rivera to the new laboratory and warehouse once the buildings are completed in April.
The city received a preliminary environmental impact report on the project in 1987, but got no direct notification when the project went before the Board of Supervisors for final approval last December.
Epple and Paul pointed out that a 1987 published notice of the environmental impact report made no mention that hazardous chemicals would be stored at the facility. Epple said the notice was "totally inadequate. They met the requirements of the law but not the spirit of the law."
Schabarum said he also was dissatisfied with the way the project was publicized, but that would not affect the facility. "I do know that existing laws were followed and everything is in compliance with those laws," he said.
The laboratory will be used for testing, to ensure that agricultural products brought into the county do not contain excessive amounts of pesticide residue, among other things.
The warehouse will be used to store equipment, such as fruit-fly traps. But the county also plans to use about 5,000 square feet of the warehouse to store thousands of pounds of pesticides, including herbicides and poison for ground squirrels.
Area residents have demonstrated against the facility several times in the past two months. In response, the county has reduced the number of pesticides it plans to store at the warehouse from more than 20 to 11, said Richard C. Wightman, spokesman for the office of the agricultural commissioner.
Downey officials and residents are worried about pesticide spills and widespread contamination if a fire were to send plumes of poisonous smoke into the air.
In addition to Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, residential neighborhoods in Downey and South Gate are near the laboratory and warehouse site. The homes in South Gate are closest, with some residences 325 feet away.
The environmental impact report mentions the possibility of spills and fires with potentially poisonous smoke. But the report says any contamination outside the grounds would be unlikely because of safety equipment and trained personnel. The facility's work area will be paved to prevent soil contamination, the report said.
Residents also are worried because poisonous fumigants used to treat the squirrel bait may be vented into the air in small amounts. Downey officials have been negotiating with Schabarum's office to eliminate any fumigation at the site.
Schabarum said Tuesday that fumigation may be necessary, but that any venting would release only small amounts of pesticides that would not harm the public.
NEXT STEP Look for Downey officials to carry on negotiations on the pesticide warehouse with Supervisor Pete Schabarum even as construction of the structure continues, with completion due in April.