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Smelting Operation Coming Under Fire

Environmental activists threaten suit, accusing Halaco of polluting the air and water for decades. A 60-day deadline is set for plant to clean up or shut down. Company claims it is in compliance.


OXNARD — Demanding an end to what it called three decades of rampant air and water pollution, a group of environmentalists said Wednesday that it would sue Halaco Engineering Co. and its smelting operation if the situation is not remedied within 60 days.

"We are here to once and for all put a stop to this," said Drew Bohan, executive director of the ChannelKeeper environmental group in Santa Barbara. "Thirty years is long enough."

Bohan was joined by about 50 neighbors, activists and lawyers who gathered at Ormond Beach just behind the Halaco site on Perkins Road, where the company melts metal for recycling.

They accuse the company of releasing carcinogens into the air, leaking contaminated water into nearby wetlands, dumping radioactive minerals around its site and maintaining 40-foot slag heaps that pose dangers to area children.

Neighbors complain of sore throats, coughs and foul smells so bad they can taste them.

"We keep our windows closed and we don't swim here," said Kesa Ryona, who lives in the Surfside condominium complex a few blocks from the plant. "I think we have the minimal right to live and breathe here safely."

Since 1970, the plant--with its smokestack, slag heaps and graffiti-scarred walls--has overlooked Ormond Beach, a popular bird-watching spot and the largest tract of undeveloped coastline in the county.

Arthur Fine, Halaco's lawyer, said the company has complied with every demand made of it by state and federal environmental regulators.

Fine denied that any contaminated water used in the smelting process leaks into ground water or wetlands. A natural clay liner, he said, encloses the waste water pond, preventing leakage.

But he admitted that small amounts of radioactive thorium can be found at the site--left over from the time between 1965 and 1977 when Halaco had a permit to process a magnesium-thorium alloy. He insists the chemical element poses no health hazard.

"Halaco is a highly regulated company that operates under various laws and permits," Fine said. "In most cases, complaints are either remedied or dismissed."

The Environmental Protection Agency listed Halaco as a significant air polluter in 1998. The EPA filed a civil case against Halaco in 1980 for disposing of an unknown type of fill material without a permit and in 1995 fined it $3,500 for the release of toxic ammonia.

"There is no current evidence of noncompliance," said Sam Farrel, an EPA analyst in San Francisco.

But the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board said Wednesday that Halaco has violated its permits three times this year alone. Hugh Marley, chief of the department's enforcement unit, said a cease-and-desist order was issued in June telling Halaco to stop discharging waste into the wetlands, ground water and canal that runs behind the plant.

The waste, which Marley said includes ammonia and high levels of metal, is leaking from the pond through the clay liner. He also said oxides from metals were rolling off the steep slag heaps into the wetlands.

"We found areas of radioactive material on this property," Marley said, noting that those materials could eventually find their way into the ground water.

Halaco is challenging some of the water board's assertions and Marley said the company has so far refused to submit a report on waste discharge, maintaining that the board does not have the authority to demand one.

The Ventura County Air Pollution Control District also has found violations at the plant over the years, but the district director, Richard Baldwin, said the facility was currently in compliance.

"They have been in and out of compliance for 20 years," Baldwin said. "I am not aware of any outstanding violations at this point."

Even so, Halaco has been the single greatest source of environmental complaints in the county, said Keith Duval, manager of the compliance division at the air district. Since 1999, the office has received more than 45 complaints about odors, tastes and fumes coming from the facility.

The business was fined $1,000 in 1998 after being cited for emitting dust into the air that can cause respiratory problems, Duval said. Yet, regulators say they have been unable to get six people--the minimum necessary to start formal action on a complaint--to fill out a written complaint form.

Victoria Clark, staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, which is representing ChannelKeeper in the legal action, said a lawsuit is nearly certain.

"There is no way they can come into compliance within 60 days," she said.

Clark and Bohan say state and local regulators have been letting Halaco get away with polluting for too long. The goal, they say, is to force the company to comply with all environmental regulations or shut down.

"They are exposing people to dangerous chemicals without notifying them; they are discharging pollutants into the water without a permit," Clark said. "They are breaking laws right and left and we are ready to take them on."

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