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Hazardous Waste Site to Be Closed by State

Safety: Rialto yard with a record of violations has failed to do promised cleanup, officials say. The EPA is called in.

June 05, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Rialto hazardous waste yard with such a poor maintenance record that it once spontaneously combusted will be closed, state officials said Tuesday as they called in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site.

The company, Denova Environmental Inc., located in the elbow formed by Interstates 10 and 15 west of San Bernardino, has rankled residents for years.

Some say they often had to close their windows because of the stench that wafted from the 20-acre facility. Last year, canisters of chemicals and hazardous waste suddenly ignited, causing a brief fire and prompting firefighters to develop contingency plans for evacuating a large portion of the city.

Then, in March, state officials entered into a controversial agreement with Denova that allowed it to remain open and offered a legal maneuver that would permit the company to avoid a $2.5-million fine. Critics said the agreement was typical of slipshod environmental oversight in the Inland Empire, where a population boom is being fed in part by enormous growth in industrial operations.

But state environmental officials said Tuesday that they learned that Denova has violated the terms of that March agreement by failing to clean up the waste on the site. The state has now taken steps to shut down the site altogether and will attempt to get the $2.5-million fine paid, said Jeanne Garcia, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

"They did not comply," Garcia said. "So it voids everything."

Denova's attorney could not be reached for comment.

As part of the state's move to shut down Denova, it has also called in the EPA to remove toxic waste from the site, officials said. Emergency crews descended on the site Tuesday morning and, after donning protective white suits, began sorting through the waste.

The crews will be there for two to three weeks and, eventually, all of the waste will be removed, said EPA spokeswoman Lisa Fasano.

First, however, comes a more daunting task: figuring out what is inside thousands of chemical bins.

So far, crews have learned that Denova was essentially divided into two businesses--one that stored hazardous waste and another that stored explosive waste, said Steve Calanog, the EPA's on-scene coordinator at Denova.

On the hazardous waste side of the compound, Calanog said, investigators have found 750 containers full of laboratory chemicals, industrial compounds and medical waste.

On the explosive side were rocket fuel, shells, mortars, detonators and other ordnance.

Denova was the last private company left in California licensed to handle many types of explosive waste, and it was a repository of sorts for law enforcement agencies and government contractors. The Tempe, Ariz., Police Department, for example, stored 1,000 pounds of small-arms ammunition there, Calanog said. Other law enforcement agencies used Denova to store chemicals seized during raids on methamphetamine labs.

Not only were the materials stored improperly, Calanog said, but the site had been effectively abandoned, meaning there was no security.

"You have explosive, unmanaged, highly sensitive waste that presented imminent threats," he said.

There is no evidence that any police or governmental agency, or any hospital, knew when it handed toxic waste to Denova that the material would not be disposed of correctly, Fasano said.

The company had argued that government contractors and law enforcement agencies that had counted on Denova to cope with excess waste will now have to ship that waste out of state, incurring higher costs in many instances.

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