In what officials say is the severest action of its kind in California history, the Orange County district attorney's office has filed criminal charges against the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in connection with an October toxic spill that left six people with chemical burns.
The water district--which imports water for distribution to 15 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties--was negligent and knowingly disregarded laws governing the discharge of toxic substances, a deputy district attorney said.
A single felony charge was filed Tuesday against the district as a whole, while two misdemeanor charges were filed against each of four top district officials, including General Manager Carl Boronkay. The district faces a maximum fine of $1 million, while the misdemeanor defendants face maximum penalties of $75,000 each in fines and three years in jail.
The criminal action stems from a spill of 466 gallons of caustic soda Oct. 26 from the Robert B. Diemer Filtration Plant in Yorba Linda, which treats most of the imported drinking water for Orange County, southeast Los Angeles County and northwest San Diego County.
The soda, which burns skin on contact, spilled from the hilltop plant into Telegraph Canyon Creek, then flowed down into Chino Hills State Park.
The spill was not discovered until Oct. 28, two days after the discharge, when six men riding mountain bicycles on a park trail suffered second-degree burns on their feet and legs after splashing through the foot-deep creek. One of the men, Charles E. Anderson, 22, of La Mirada, sought treatment at La Mirada Community Hospital.
"I thought I had thorns in my shoes," Anderson said Tuesday of how he felt after drenching his feet in the creek. "I took my shoes off and my feet were yellow. Pus was coming out and they looked like hamburger."
Jan Nolan, an Orange County deputy district attorney in charge of consumer fraud and environmental protection, said her office filed the felony charge after an investigation determined the MWD had knowingly maintained, since at least 1984, a drainage system designed to discharge toxic chemicals into the creek.
MWD officials said the spill occurred when a pressure relief valve malfunctioned and the caustic soda backed up into an underground drain line that drained into the creek.
Jay Malinowski, an MWD spokesman in Los Angeles, said the district had not yet had a chance to review the charges and would have no comment on them.
Alan Ashby, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office in Sacramento, said he believes this is the first time a felony charge has been filed against a public agency in connection with alleged environmental infractions.