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Plant Executive Guilty of Felony Toxics Disposal : Pollution: The former W. C. Richard vice president faces prison and huge fine for hazardous-waste violations in O.C.'s first major dumping trial.

June 04, 1992|MARLA CONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — In the first major waste-dumping trial in Orange County, a Superior Court jury Wednesday convicted a former Anaheim paint plant executive of directing his employees to mix toxic chemicals in ordinary trash on a daily basis for over two years.

After a trial that lasted two months and deliberations that lasted two hours, a jury found Marion Bruce Hale, ex-vice president of W. C. Richards Co., guilty of all five felony counts against him.

Hale, 45, of Brea will be sentenced by Superior Court Judge William Bedsworth next month. Prosecutors said they will seek time in state prison for the violations of California's hazardous-waste disposal law.

The criminal charges were triggered more than two years ago by an anonymous phone call to Anaheim fire officials. The county's environmental strike team, in a weeks-long undercover investigation of W. C. Richards Co., concluded that several hundred thousand gallons of chemical waste had been illegally thrown in the company's dumpsters.

County health officials and prosecutors have called it one of the most serious environmental cases in Orange County because of the large amounts of toxic materials and the threat they posed to the area's ground water.

Johnston said Wednesday's conviction should send a strong message to polluting companies and their executives that illegal dumping will not be tolerated. Businesses sometimes dump waste to avoid the expense of legal disposal at special plants and dump sites, which often runs higher than $500 per barrel.

Although felony toxic waste cases have been settled out of court in Orange County, the Hale case is the first to go to trial.

"Not many cases have been tried under these (state) laws yet, so it's nice to set a precedent that they can be won," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Gerald G. Johnston, who prosecuted the case. "It's the first major one we've tried in this county and one of the few in the state."

Hale's attorney was unavailable for comment late Wednesday. Hale faces fines as high as $100,000 per day of violation and up to five years and eight months in prison.

Felony charges were also filed against W. C. Richards Co., an Illinois-based paint manufacturer with annual sales of about $10 million. But the company last year agreed to pay a $250,000 fine and plead no contest to a misdemeanor to settle the charges out of court. The company dismissed Hale, who was the top executive at the Anaheim plant, soon after the charges were filed.

During the undercover investigation, the city of Anaheim sent garbage trucks to the plant at 1116 N. Olive St. to pick up their dumpsters, then investigators sorted through the trash. Sampling showed high concentrations of toxic metals, including lead and zinc, and chlorinated solvents, such as ethylbenzene, which are suspected of causing cancer. The solvents are especially worrisome because they leach quickly through soil to pollute water supplies.

"We got a search warrant and started interviewing employees, and they said, 'Sure, we've been doing it this way for years,' " Johnston said.

Employees told officials that between 150 and 300 gallons of hazardous waste were thrown illegally in the trash each day, amounting to hundreds of thousands of gallons over a 2 1/2-year period, Johnston said.

At the trial, four current and former W. C. Richards employees testified that Hale directed them to mix toxic solvents with sawdust and then throw it in dumpsters that were hauled to the Brea-Olinda county landfill.

The defense argued that the materials found were not hazardous waste and that authorities had improperly obtained and handled the samples. The defense also brought forward four employees who disputed the testimony of the other workers by saying waste was not improperly handled and that Hale was not responsible for disposal.

Hale's attorney has said he plans to appeal.

The five felony counts included one that the illegal dumping occurred on a daily basis from Jan. 1, 1988, through April 17, 1990--the date the company was raided by authorities.

"He sent stuff to a landfill for years and that landfill is now showing signs of pollutants moving down into the ground water--the same types of pollutants we found him dumping," Johnston said.

Some drinking-water wells in the Brea and Anaheim area have been shut down because of pollution from industrial solvents, but there is no way to trace their source.

Witnesses for county prosecutors included chemists from around the country, and the jurors sorted through hundreds of pages of highly technical exhibits. The jury included two engineers, but the rest were mostly retirees, students and other lay people with no experience in toxic-waste issues, Johnston said.

In February, W. C. Richards was the focus of another investigation when Orange County's environmental strike team--which is composed of 10 city, county and state agencies--unearthed at least three decayed chemical drums buried at the plant. The team had long suspected drums were buried there, but none were found until an informant pointed out the location. The district attorney's office is considering further charges stemming from that discovery.

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