Federal, state and local law enforcement officials announced Thursday the first federal felony indictment under an environmental law in a case involving the smuggling of toxic wastes from Los Angeles and Orange counties into Mexico.
Citing growing trafficking of hazardous garbage from California across the border, the officials also announced the creation of a new multi-agency task force intended to remove jurisdictional problems that have hampered such smuggling investigations in the past.
"There are a lot of types of crime that have gone global--white collar crime, terrorism and drugs, just to name a few," said William Stollhans, assistant special agent in charge of enforcing environmental laws for the FBI. "The indictment today is an example of where environmental crimes have now gone international. They know no international boundaries."
The indictment charges that Raymond Franco, 57, a licensed waste hauler from El Toro, accepted money from California businesses to take their wastes to legal landfills or recycling facilities. But instead of going to the designated sites, the indictment says, Franco and an accomplice, David Torres, 39, of Huntington Park, loaded drums of the dangerous materials into enclosed trucks destined for Mexico, concealing the barrels under cardboard and wood and surrounding them with empty drums.
Much of the dangerous material allegedly was dumped at a Tijuana warehouse owned by Torres, and investigators fear some of the barrels later may have been used by nearby residents to store water. Prosecutors said the government of Mexico cooperated fully in the inquiry.
Among the firms whose waste ended up in Tijuana was Barmet Aluminum Corp. of Torrance, which paid Franco a total of $12,000 in 1988 to haul 57 drums of hazardous material to a treatment facility and a licensed hazardous waste landfill, according to the indictment.
Had the material actually gone to a legal landfill, the cost would have approached $28,000, more than twice as much as the firm paid Franco, investigators said. The division manager of the Torrance facility, which was not charged, said the company trusted Franco to dispose of the material lawfully.
On Wednesday, The Times reported that increasingly strict environmental laws and the escalating costs of legal disposal are prodding more and more hazardous waste generators in Southern California to send their toxic garbage illegally into Mexico, where it is dumped or used in industrial processing.
The indictment announced Thursday marked the first time transporters of hazardous waste have been charged with illegal smuggling under the U.S. Resource and Conservation Recovery Act, which prohibits, among other things, disposing of hazardous waste without a permit.
In a similar case in 1986, three Americans were indicted by a federal grand jury in San Diego for falsifying shipping documents. That case was filed under federal mail fraud statutes.
"This is the first time that California law enforcement officers have in fact witnessed the unlawful smuggling of toxic waste into Mexico and have documented it," said William Carter, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who helped investigate the case. "This is just one set of players out of dozens who are out there operating in similar fashion. We just have to take them one set at a time."
In a separate case stemming from the Franco investigation, the federal grand jury also indicted Laminating Co. of America, a Garden Grove firm, accusing it of conspiracy to dispose of and transport hazardous waste and 46 counts of illegal transportation and disposal of toxic waste--all within Orange County.
Rex Scatena, an attorney for Laminating, said the company is "an old, family-run business." He said he had not yet seen the indictment, but he defended the firm.
"They have all the necessary permits to dispose of and handle the materials they use there," Scatena said. "We deny that they had anything at all to do with the transportation of wastes to Mexico."
Carmen Trutanich, another of LCOA's lawyers, said he investigated the matter and concluded that the company was "victimized," but he would not elaborate.
Franco, who authorities said disappeared from his Orange County home a year ago, was arrested in New York on Wednesday. He was arraigned before a federal magistrate in Brooklyn on Thursday and was held pending a bail hearing today. Authorities said they were planning to summon Torres to appear before a federal magistrate in Los Angeles. Torres is believed to be cooperating with investigators.
Franco and Torres could not be reached for comment, but a woman who identified herself as Franco's wife said her husband is innocent.
Reached by telephone at the couple's El Toro home, the sobbing woman said, "He did nothing wrong. . . . He is a good person."