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Quake Debris Cleanup Plan Scaled Back


The Los Angeles City Council, which was poised to approve a multimillion-dollar plan to tackle the illegal dumping of earthquake debris, dramatically scaled back the program Friday when it learned the problem was far less serious than previously believed.

Officials had estimated that more than 100,000 tons of debris was piled on city streets when a federally funded cleanup program ended last month. But, in fact, about 7,500 tons exist citywide, J. P. Ellman, president of the Board of Public Works, told council members.

The council, which had been expected to approve a nearly $3.5-million plan to clear away debris and prevent further dumping, quickly adjusted the proposal and approved an $800,000 plan.

"We feel this is the proper way to go," said Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents parts of the northwest San Fernando Valley, adding that some fine-tuning could be done later.

Ellman said street maintenance officials conducted the latest review Thursday of earthquake debris--the bulk of which is in the San Fernando Valley--related to the January, 1994, Northridge temblor.

She said it appeared that property owners were paying attention to the fact that the federal cleanup program was finished and that it is their responsibility to clear their debris. About 80% of all debris is being removed by property owners, while the remaining 20% probably is being dumped illegally and will be left for the city to pick up, she said.

Ellman said in an interview that the dramatic change in the estimated amount of debris occurred because original estimates were based on conditions when the federal program ended. In recent weeks, as more property owners tended to their debris, the piles began falling away rapidly and officials decided it was time to update the figures, she said.

"The compliance rate started to go up and up," she said. "We're being realistic now. I was pleasantly surprised."

City officials said another 30,000 tons of debris are expected to be generated from new or ongoing construction but it remains to be seen how much of it accumulates on city streets.

"The good news is the word is getting out," Ellman said. "People are complying."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency ended its cleanup program July 17 after spending about $233 million to get rid of an estimated 2.4 million tons of earthquake debris.

Since the end of the program, those cited for dumping debris have been given 10 days to comply, but could face up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail, or they could be charged the roughly $800- to $1,200-per-ton cleanup cost, officials said.

The plan approved by the council Friday includes provisions for educating the public about the end of the federal cleanup program, enforcing laws prohibiting the inappropriate dumping of debris and issuing additional penalties to property owners who do not comply.

It also calls for an appeal process that would begin with public works authorities but could ultimately result in property owners pleading their cases directly to the council.

Besides being billed for the city's costs, residents who do not comply will face a penalty charge expected to be 40% of the cost of removing their debris, council members said.

Several council members said they were surprised by the latest debris estimates.

Some also wondered if the appeal process would become overwhelming.

"I can envision a lot of folks saying, 'This wasn't mine,' " said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents the northeast Valley.

Still, the continuing local cleanup was encouraging to city officials who worried that piles of garbage could cause a health hazard. Debris piles can be breeding ground for rats or vermin if they contain materials such as wood, paper, food or other trash.

"We don't believe we have an imminently dangerous health concern on our hands," Francine Oschin, a spokeswoman for Bernson, said after the council meeting.

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