Teams of investigators digging for a massive toxic waste disposal site in a San Jacinto feedlot ended their hunt Thursday, concluding a three-week search that yielded far less than they expected and left officials frustrated and embarrassed.
"There's a lot of disappointment," said one investigator. "They found some stuff, but certainly not what they were looking for."
FBI agents and California Highway Patrol officers who oversaw the operation had been told by informants that as many as 7,000 used containers of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides were buried in a feedlot owned by Agri-Empire Corp., the nation's largest family-owned potato producer. Some experts feared that the feedlot could have been one of the most contaminated agricultural areas in Southern California.
In an inventory filed Thursday, investigators listed 11 "55-gallon (drums) containing can fragments," as well as a small number of suspicious chemicals, fungicide bags and other containers before budget constraints forced them to halt their search. On Thursday, according to sources close to the investigation, federal and state teams finished filling in most of the holes they had dug, cleaned up trash and repaired minor damage left after the three-week operation.
Water and soil samples taken from the site have not yet been tested by the government, but officials from the company say their preliminary tests of a dozen or so samples indicate no contamination at the feedlot. A spokesman for Agri-Empire said the paltry findings from the feedlot demonstrate that the company was falsely accused.
"No property, including your back yard or mine, is perfectly clean," said Xavier Hermosillo, the spokesman for the company. "But what they found is not 7,000 barrels of toxic waste, nor 700, nor 70."
Hermosillo also said that the 55-gallon drums themselves were not unearthed at the site. He said that the fragments had been unearthed by investigators who then put them into the drums.
Investigators countered that even though they failed to find the thousands of contaminated containers they sought, the materials dug up do indicate some signs of toxic waste.
Among findings cited in the search warrant inventory filed Thursday afternoon in federal court were 21 soil samples that contained ash or metal chips, a label from an insecticide bag, an "Ortho fly killer 'D' " pesticide and untested samples of water and unidentified liquids.
Government agents also reported searching the company headquarters, where they seized an array of records. They also combed a potato shed where the inventory lists an eight-ounce sample of DDT. That pesticide has long been banned.
Hermosillo said the company "is clean" and will be exonerated totally. In the meantime, however, he said company officials are reluctant to speak out publicly against the investigators for fear of antagonizing the government.
John Marinez, a Highway Patrol spokesman who angered some investigators by holding a hastily called news conference the day that warrants were served and announcing details of the investigation, was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Agri-Empire is one of the San Jacinto Valley's best-known companies and biggest employers. Its top officials, Larry and Wayne Minor, are prominent politically in the area. Neither of the Minor brothers was available for comment Thursday.
Dozens of officials representing a variety of local, state and federal agencies participated in the digging, which was hampered by delay after delay, most because of extremely hot weather. With the temperature around 100 degrees, crews had to work short days and take breaks during the midday sun.
Even as they wrapped up their dig, some of the agents and scientists assigned to the project expressed frustration at being unable to continue with the search because of financial considerations.
"It all comes down to money," said one scientist assigned to monitor the project. "There hasn't been any loss of faith."
John Hoos, a spokesman for the FBI, said he did not know how much the agency had spent on the digging before the operation was called off. Officials from other agencies also said they were unsure how much their organizations had spent.
Hoos added that the "investigation is continuing."
As they returned the warrants, some agents and scientists close to the project conceded that the episode had been an embarrassing one. But few were willing to say that they believe the property is clean.
Investigators said that their informants--some of whom are said to be former employees of Agri-Empire--could not remember exactly where they were ordered to dump the empty containers.
Some of the informants were brought to the site during the digging, investigators said. But the 106-acre parcel has few landmarks, and its topography has changed with grading since the late 1980s, when the containers were allegedly buried.
In addition, the informants had difficulty remembering how deep the material was allegedly buried. Investigators began digging at one depth, then turned to digging deeper holes after informants came to the site, officials said.
"The belief of the case agents is that it (the toxic waste) is there and that they don't believe there was a conspiracy on the part of the people that came forward" with information, said one person close to the investigation. "Some of these people are living in different states and haven't talked to each other for five years."
Hermosillo dismissed those comments. He said the agencies are trying to save face by inventing excuses for why they failed to uncover clear evidence of widespread dumping.
"A lot of digging was done. The Minors cooperated 100%," Hermosillo said. "Despite their total cooperation, they didn't find those hundreds or thousands of buried barrels of toxic waste. . . . That's because they aren't there."