The era of local treatment of hazardous waste has arrived.
Ten companies are seeking permits to treat hazardous waste in Los Angeles County. Another 20 or so firms already operate in the county, including two in Santa Fe Springs and another in Whittier.
Ed Vigil is the environmental and safety manager for Southern California Chemical in Santa Fe Springs. For the last 32 years, his company has sold, recycled and resold a chemical used to remove excess copper from circuit boards. Records from the county Public Works Department indicate that in 1986 alone, his company recycled more than 9,000 tons of industrial chemicals.
"We as an industry have not sold our case well," Vigil said. "We have not educated the public."
Vigil said that although chemicals used in his plant are defined as hazardous, much of his recycled product could be safely poured on the ground as fertilizer. He said the loosely defined term hazardous waste takes in some materials that pose little risk.
"The word hazardous waste makes your skin crawl," agreed Jim Herbert, sales manager for Omega Recovery Services in Whittier. He said the type of waste and the kind of recycling involved make a lot of difference when evaluating safety risks.
"Right now, hazardous waste is a political issue," he said. "Any time politicians get involved, you get some misinformation." Hazardous waste treatment "is not as safe as my industry says it is, but not as bad as politicians say or as the public believes."
His company recycles Freon, the coolant used in air-conditioners and refrigerators. It is an environmentally sound commercial mission in an era when Freon is blamed, in part, for depleting the atmosphere's protective ozone layer.
But most recycling processes raise safety issues, Herbert acknowledged. His company handles highly flammable chemicals that will ignite if they get hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. He rates the potential danger no less or no greater than that at any manufacturing plant using volatile substances.
Ignoring safety standards is not only foolish, but bad business, he said. "It's difficult to get permits. Some days I put out more paper work than product, it seems."
If Herbert's company or Vigil's were seeking first-time operating licenses in Santa Fe Springs today, they might encounter problems. The city's new hazardous-waste management plan limits local treatment of waste that is generated outside the city. And both firms recycle waste from across the state.
Herbert believes the public should be more concerned about hazardous materials that do not reach treatment and recycling facilities. By law, manufacturers can only store hazardous waste for 90 days, but "that is a rule that is blatantly ignored," he said.
In a recent interview, Santa Fe Springs Fire Chief Robert Wilson said he was concerned about stored chemical waste that may have been piling up on back lots of small factories for months or even years.
"I wouldn't be a fireman in L.A. County for all the tea in China," Herbert said.