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Obscure Crimes, Dire Trade-Offs

Perimeters / PATT MORRISON

July 26, 1995|PATT MORRISON

By habit, I walked into the Criminal Courts Building before I realized I was in the wrong place. The courtroom I was seeking, the case with 11 felonies, was in another courthouse, not in this building where O.J. Simpson is on trial for two felonies.

On the sidewalk outside the right courthouse is a stencil above a curbside storm drain. Its chalk-blue caution encircles a fish skeleton. "This drains to ocean--no dumping." Finding it outside the courthouse was provocative: street crimes versus crimes under the streets.

This is about alleged white-collar crime. White-collar crime doesn't make it to Court TV. The Charles Keating S & L case didn't rate hourly updates on CNN.

When one human dispatches another with a gun, the link is clear, the crime messy, the impact visceral. When people lose their savings or their homes in some high-finance version of three-card monte, when they miscarry or get sick from something in the air or the water, the connection is obscure, the storytelling not nearly so compelling. The crime with the knife will always get air time over the crime with the pen.

The preliminary hearing was to determine whether Quality Processing Inc., a Sun Valley metal plating firm that contracts with large aerospace companies, and its secretary / manager, Jack Meltzer, should be tried for alleged felony and misdemeanor dumping of cyanide, cadmium and other noisome substances into the sewer system.

In May, 1994, documents say, six months after Quality shut off the "clarifier" device that allowed it to send treated waste water into the sewers and opted instead to clean its own waste and pay to have it taken away, the city performed "close out" tests to see whether Quality's new system was working.

What turned up, documents say, were alarming levels of chrome and zinc solutions, and untreated cyanide--a red flag word, the favorite poison of sleuths in fiction with its scent of bitter almonds, the suicide of choice for Nazis at Nuremberg and true believers at Jonestown.

When the search warrant was served, investigators said they found a green hose connecting a 55-gallon drum of cyanide and heavy metals to a drainpipe. Court files quote an employee quoting his boss asking him to hook it up. "What can I do?" Jaime Solis Ramirez quoted his boss, "Jack." "I have people to pay, I don't want to lose my business. I can't afford to buy the entire system right now. Do your best. I don't see anything."

*

The Division 14 courtroom was somewhat enlivened by magnetic display chart exhibits in Easter pastels, and language reminiscent of Simpson--split samples, discovery sanctions. And like the Simpson case, the cast of lawyers is most curious.

The prosecutor is Anthony G. Patchett, assistant head deputy of the environmental crimes division, former sheriff's deputy, conservative Republican. In the best spot on his office windowsill is a photo of him with Pete Wilson. But on this topic, you could close your eyes and think you're hearing Tom Hayden: "I don't care whether you're liberal or conservative. . . . If you don't protect your environment, you don't have a workplace."

Defense counsel is Barry C. Groveman. He prosecuted environmental crime for both the city and county. He was a co-author of Proposition 65, the state toxics initiative. He advised Dianne Feinstein's 1990 gubernatorial campaign on environmental matters. He was the man Supervisor Gloria Molina wanted to hire last year to find thrifty ways to save environmental prosecution.

In a 1989 Times story, Groveman said he felt the pendulum had swung too far to criminal enforcement: "As we head into the 1990s, we are seeing a political climate of affirmative action on the environment in which a businessman does not have civil rights."

In court, Groveman contended that the samples were inaccurate and inadequate--"if they'd taken the right amount of representative sampling, it would very likely have been non-hazardous"--that investigators didn't preserve the defense's split samples, rendering them useless. He raised questions about due process, he warned of a "chilling effect on every industry" that uses 55-gallon drums, and asked for dismissal.

*

Last summer, six weeks after the search at Quality, two Rocketdyne scientists in Simi Hills blew themselves up. This week, we hear that the tests the company says they were doing, a Cal/OSHA memo contends, were "a disguise" for illegally obliterating waste explosive chemicals.

The incidents are unrelated, but they are obliquely linked. Industries whose products we demand are all about trade-offs and calculated risks. But what risks, and to whom? The same questions hold for the basics as for the cutting edge: What has to die, and how, to put a 99-cent hamburger on your plate? Who has to work, and in what conditions, to put a $9 shirt on your back? How many people can we lose to get to the moon, or to get cheap fuel? When is one man's poison another man's meat?

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