Ventura County leaders joined environmentalists Tuesday in urging state regulators to crack down on an Oxnard metal recycling center, one of the biggest sources of air and water pollution complaints in the county.
Critics demanded that the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board force Halaco Engineering Inc. to comply with its permit, which regulates the soupy waste the company discharges from its plant daily.
"Delays are no longer acceptable," said county Supervisor Kathy Long, one of about 40 people who attended Tuesday's public hearing. "We are calling on you to bring this operation up to today's environmental laws so we can feel we are protected."
Port Hueneme resident Marisela Morales, who lives near the smelting plant, begged the water board to require Halaco to do a better job of containing its waste, which is feared to be polluting the area's ground water.
"I can get fined for throwing a piece of paper on the freeway, but this company has been polluting for years and endangering lives," Morales said. "Halaco has had plenty of time to clean up its act, and it's been at our cost."
The current dispute began last year when water board officials found evidence that ammonia and other toxic chemicals were leaking from Halaco's property into nearby wetlands, potentially harming migratory birds and other wildlife in the area. Halaco officials maintain that the plant has never violated its existing permit or any environmental laws.
After five months of delays, the water board was set Tuesday to vote on a new discharge permit with tighter restrictions. But board members agreed to postpone a decision until Jan. 11 following a presentation by Halaco about a new $100,000 filtration system it wants to install.
Halaco attorney Arthur Fine said the new system would remove 80% of the water from the waste discharge, and dispose of it through the city's sewer system. He said the process would cut the ammonia content of the discharge and reduce the likelihood of polluting nearby wetlands, ground water and the ocean.
Such a solution was not feasible until recently, when Halaco offiials discovered a chemical additive that would keep the stream of muck from clogging a filter, Fine said.
Once the waste is dry, Fine said, it can be separated and sold for other uses--including as additives for farm fertilizer. This would help reduce the amount of waste being piled onto a 40-foot-high slag heap on the site.
When the water in the ponds evaporates, that heap could be spread out over the entire property, he said, cutting its height in half.
But environmentalists and others who attended the hearing said they are reluctant to trust Halaco. Outside the meeting room, some activists posted hand-painted banners bearing pictures of skulls and asserting, "Halaco poisons children."
"The whole pitch today was a complete ruse," said Drew Bohan, executive director of Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, which has sued Halaco in both state and federal court alleging two decades of violations of clean air and water laws. "It's complete bad faith."
Supervisor Frank Schillo also questioned the timing of Halaco's latest proposal, submitted in late October.
"The water board must enforce its rules now," he said. "We can't wait for Halaco to change its operations in order to bypass regulation, which is what it appears to be doing."
Another issue raised by critics was whether the water left over from the filtered discharges would be clean enough to send through the city's sewer system.
Halaco, perched on the shores of Oxnard since 1970, has long been a thorn in the city's side, and for the last several years has been at the center of a number of regulatory and legal tangles related to air and water quality issues.
The Environmental Protection Agency listed Halaco as a significant air polluter in 1998, and the company has wrangled over permits with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.