YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Boon to Bane

Once Welcomed by Oxnard, Halaco Now Seen as Thorn in City's Side


OXNARD — City officials welcomed Halaco Engineering to a beach on the community's southern tip 35 years ago.

In a city then thirsting for growth, the metal recycler seemed a good fit: The site was a former dump, it was far from where people lived and from potable ground water, and the company would bring dozens of new jobs.

Now, however, the factory and the huge slag heap growing next to it are viewed as the biggest environmental thorn in the city's side. The 40-foot slag heap--a charcoal-colored mesa of waste--sits next to where waves boom onto the shore and endangered least terns and snowy plovers hop amid the dunes.

Almost from the time it began operating in 1970, the 41-acre facility with the mountain of slag has fended off court battles, jabs from regulators and neighbors who complain the place is making them sick.

Halaco has always prevailed by fighting aggressively, bombarding opponents with reams of paper and sticking to its argument that it is within its permit and has a right--even a duty--to operate.

Now, however, Halaco is facing the most serious threat yet to its survival from a recent flurry of regulatory and legal actions. A well-funded Santa Barbara-based environmental group, ChannelKeeper, has filed a lawsuit alleging Halaco is releasing toxic materials into the air and water.

A state water board could shut the company down if it can prove that Halaco is releasing ammonia-laced water into nearby wetlands and is refusing to clean it up. And Halaco says a decision by the county's Air Pollution Control District requiring the plant to meet stricter pollution-control standards for two new furnaces could mean the end for the facility.

Halaco officials are seeking a federal court's permission to overturn that decision, arguing that it's an impossible goal to meet and that it could put them out of business.

"It doesn't mean we'll go bankrupt in a month or two, or six months," said Arthur Fine, the firm's attorney and son of one of the co-owners. "But it means we run a real risk."

No one can remember any huge outcry when the city approved Halaco's location on the beachfront off Perkins Road.

Slag Heap Grows Despite Assurances

The area was zoned heavy industrial. And 35 years ago, when sewer plants and power stations were beginning to dot the seaside, no one in the city thought it was a problem to have a metal recycler sitting on prime beach property.

The facility takes aluminum and magnesium scrap, melts it down and recycles it, then sells it to car companies and soda bottlers. The company now employs about 50 people and annual sales exceed $10 million, said plant manager Dave Gable. Halaco is owned by a handful of partners, including Les Fine, who helped bring it to Oxnard.

Millions of pounds of soda and beer cans--as well as Volkswagen engine blocks and parts of Chevrolet Suburban steering wheels--move through the foundry each year. The waste products--the impurities that are washed off prior to smelting--are pumped into three large waste ponds, and then are piled in a huge powdery slag heap once they dry into a residue.

When the site opened, then-Vice President Les Fine promised the slag heap wouldn't grow. It has.

It is a veritable mountain of waste and muck, the byproduct and residue of years and years of recycling metals: 1.5 billion pounds of dirt, salts, aluminum, magnesium, other heavy metals such as chromium and copper, and a trace, regulators say, of a radioactive material called thorium.

"You see water leaking out of their slag heap into the wetlands," said Drew Bohan, executive director of ChannelKeeper. "There's this lunar landscape mound, and beneath it, this unmistakable dead zone."

He says foggy smoke leaks from the plant and hugs the ground. Neighbors and employees at the nearby sewage treatment plant complain that foul black dust flies into the air, hurts their throats and makes them cough.

Kesa Ryona, who lives in the Surfside III condominiums in Port Hueneme to the west of the facility, has helped found a neighborhood group opposed to Halaco. About 25 members showed up at a pollution control district meeting April 10 to demand more attention. Ryona has started a petition to put pressure on regulators and visited the poor neighborhoods of farm workers to the north that she says are most affected by the plant.

Her family doesn't swim at the beach anymore, and she leaves the windows closed even when it's hot. Ryona says her older daughter wakes up every day with a cough.

At John Barber's skating rink on Hueneme Road north of Halaco, the kids come in demanding to know what is causing the terrible smell. The apartment building owned by Russell and Elizabeth Tracy gets covered in a black dirt that they swear is coming from the plant, and that they must vacuum and wipe up daily. Black soot dusts their cars and windowpanes.

Los Angeles Times Articles