Misdemeanor charges were filed this week against two top Lawndale city officials who have been under investigation since November for their roles in the improper demolition of three city-owned buildings that contained asbestos panels.
Lawndale City Manager James Arnold and Public Works Director James Sanders each were charged with five counts of illegally disposing of hazardous waste and 12 counts of failing to comply with state and federal regulations regarding the handling of asbestos in connection with the demolition last June of the buildings, at the former city yard.
"They knew there was asbestos in the buildings, and they failed to take necessary precautions," Deputy Dist. Atty. Anthony Patchett said Monday. "They are in positions of responsibility and authority. They should obey the law, and they failed to do so."
Lawndale City Atty. David Aleshire defended the city officials Tuesday, saying the incident "just doesn't seem like a criminal case." He said that until Jan. 1, 1990, the South Coast Air Quality Management District did not have regulations covering the type of asbestos tiles and panels found in the houses.
Patchett, however, strongly disputed that, saying the panels posed a health risk and should have been handled in accordance with state guidelines.
Arnold called the charges "massive overkill" on Wednesday, but said he wanted to speak with his attorney before commenting further on the case. Sanders did not return calls to City Hall this week. Both are to be arraigned June 20 in South Bay Municipal Court. If they are found guilty of willfully ignoring the regulations, Patchett said, he would recommend they be fined $5,000 and serve at least 90 days in jail.
At the time of the demolition, Sanders was praised by some city officials for having mounted a bulldozer himself to raze the buildings after a contractor asked to postpone the work. Neighbors soon complained that the bulldozing by Sanders and a city crew left their houses covered with dust. When they learned that the demolished houses had contained asbestos, they lodged a formal complaint with the Air Quality Management District.
Paula Cone, then assistant city manager, who lived in one of the houses in 1968 when it belonged to an in-law, told investigators that she twice warned Arnold and Sanders that the buildings contained asbestos, Patchett said. But they ignored her, he said.
The district attorney's office began investigating the case in November after the AQMD cited the city for failing to comply with district requirements for the safe disposal of asbestos, a once-popular form of insulation that is now known to cause cancer and other lung ailments, Patchett said.
Although he had planned to file felony charges in April, Patchett said, he was told to speak with another asbestos expert before proceeding with the case to determine whether misdemeanor charges would be more appropriate.
According to state health and safety codes and AQMD regulations, panels containing more than 1% of asbestos must be handled in accordance with strict guidelines to ensure that asbestos fibers aren't released into the environment. Chemical tests on two samples of siding taken from the demolished houses at 167th Street and Osage Avenue concluded that one contained 4% asbestos and the other contained 20%, Patchett said.
The guidelines require that prior notification be given to the AQMD whenever a structure containing asbestos is to be demolished, that asbestos-containing material be kept wet to reduce the amount of dust released into the air, and that workers place the waste in sealed containers.
Patchett said Sanders, who personally participated in the demolition of the buildings, and Arnold, who is his immediate supervisor, violated all three regulations. Although it is not known whether any neighbors were exposed to enough asbestos dust to suffer health problems, Patchett said, "from what we hear from the residents, we do feel there was a considerable amount of dust and particles in the air."
The three buildings, which were private homes when they were bought by the city in 1968, were used to store tractor tires, Christmas decorations and inoperable city vehicles. In 1989, several years after Lawndale opened a new city yard on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, city officials decided to raze the buildings at the old yard to put in a city park.
Although the city had hired a contractor specializing in asbestos removal to demolish another city-owned house on Burin Avenue the year before, no such steps were taken with respect to the three buildings in the former city yard, Patchett said.
Instead, the city hired a contractor to tear down the buildings without mentioning that they contained asbestos, he said. When workers for Kirtland & Sons Demolition arrived at the houses to start the job, however, they discovered the electricity was still on and they asked to reschedule, Mark Kirtland told an investigator in papers filed with the court.