SANTA ANA — In an innovative effort to stop the illegal dumping of dangerous industrial waste in landfills, Orange County officials announced Monday that they have recruited garbage haulers to watch for hazardous materials dropped in ordinary trash and to report serious abuses.
The effort, according to local officials, is the first in the nation to team private companies with public environmental officials in the battle against illegal dumping, which can foul the ground water and air.
Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said the haulers will focus on the trash generated by about 7,000 businesses, although eventually the county hopes to expand it to include household garbage cans.
Capizzi predicted that as many as 50 companies a year will face criminal charges as a result of this new effort--dubbed "Haz Mat SWAT," for Hazardous Materials Solid Waste Advisory Team. But he stressed that he hopes the main benefit of the program will be prevention, not prosecution, by sending industry a message that unlawful disposal of hazardous waste will not go undetected.
"It's a classic case where an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure," Capizzi said.
The garbage truck drivers, employed by about 20 companies, will be trained by the county to notice the telltale signs of industrial dumping, such as strong odors and corrosion or staining of dumpsters. They also will be provided a list of companies known to generate hazardous waste, so they can give their trash extra attention. Some dumpsters at industries considered "high risk" may be marked to alert the haulers.
If they find a problem they believe is serious or recurring, the garbage companies have agreed to phone a 24-hour-a-day hot line at the county's Health Care Agency. The complaints will be investigated by Orange County's hazardous materials strike team, which is composed of officials from about 10 city, county and state environmental agencies.
"This provides another pair of eyes for us," said Robert E. Merryman, director of Orange County's Environmental Health office, the county agency that enforces toxic-waste laws.
"We do not feel we have complete control (of industrial dumping) but this will . . . enable us to stop most of the hazardous waste going into landfills," he said. "There are only a few (offenders), but they are the few we want to catch."
The district attorney's office, working with several county environmental agencies, developed the concept after discovering that major amounts of chemical waste were being buried in the county's landfills.
Last year, an Anaheim paint-manufacturing plant, W.C. Richards Co., was charged with disguising hundreds of thousands of gallons of industrial solvents in sawdust and throwing it in the trash, a practice that allegedly occurred for several years. The company settled the case by paying a $250,000 fine, but a former vice president still faces felony charges.
About 14,000 tons of garbage a day is hauled to Orange County landfills, and "several hundred tons" of that is illegally dumped chemicals from businesses and households, said Frank R. Bowerman, manager of the county's Integrated Waste Management Department. The materials include everything from motor oil to acidic or cancer-causing solvents.
Most illegal dumping is easy to detect. At W.C. Richards Co., the garbage hauler noticed problems for months, but did not know he should report them, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jerry Johnston, who is coordinating the team.
"The odors were so bad, he was getting headaches, but he did not understand the significance of it," Johnston said. "That's what we want to correct."
The private trash companies, however, don't want to be turned into toxic cops or spies, so it took several months of discussions with the district attorney's office to work out the details of the new partnership.
The companies agreed to participate only if they could notify their customers first if they found a violation. Repeated, serious violators will be turned in to the hot line.
"You put them in a real awkward situation if you ask them to be informants on their clients," Johnston said. "So we're asking them to use their judgment. What we're looking for is the serious criminal acts anyway."
Bob Barber, a vice president of Waste Management Inc., which operates two of Orange County's largest waste-hauling companies, said his aim is to educate businesses, not police them. He said many small businesses are not aware of the laws.
"If we find a customer with a real problem and they're not willing to comply, we will notify the agency. We'll do it only when we think there's negligence," Barber said.
Capizzi said the new effort is necessary because of the increasing industrialization of Orange County. About 10,000 companies produce hazardous waste in the county.