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Huntington Methane Tests Faked, D.A. Says

Company charged with filing phony results to show declining gas levels under two city sites.

October 22, 2002|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A company hired by Huntington Beach to monitor potentially dangerous methane gas under a park and a library repeatedly faked the data to make it appear the gas levels were declining, prosecutors charged Monday.

GeoScience Analytical Inc. of Simi Valley, and its president Fleet E. Rust, face criminal charges of submitting false field test data to government officials. If convicted, Rust could be sentenced to two years in prison and $50,000 in fines.

"We need to send a message to labs that they certainly aren't going to get away with that kind of conduct in this county," said Nick Thompson, an Orange County deputy district attorney.

Rust could not be reached for comment Monday.

Huntington Beach hired GeoScience Analytical several years ago to test methane levels at Edison Community Park and Huntington Beach Central Library, which are built atop closed landfills. Decaying waste creates methane, a colorless, odorless gas that is highly explosive.

The company filed regular reports to the Orange County Health Care Agency's Solid Waste Enforcement unit.

However, officials with the agency became suspicious this year when methane levels appeared to be rapidly dropping. A county inspector went to the sites and saw monitoring wells covered in cobwebs, debris and dirt that had not been disturbed in some time.

The district attorney's office also sealed the monitoring sites. To test the wells, the company would have had to break the seals. But the seals remained intact, officials said.

The county district attorney's office set up surveillance of the sites, and concluded that no one was monitoring methane levels. Yet the GeoScience Analytical reports kept coming in, Thompson said.

As soon as the city learned of the false reports, it tested the park and the library, as well as 29 homes and a nearby school. These tests found that there is no threat to the public but found that levels were not dropping as GeoScience had claimed, Huntington Beach Fire Chief Mike Dolder said.

Dolder said he felt "absolutely shocked" by the revelation. "It was disbelief initially," he said. "Then we focused, and said let's get in there and make sure the neighborhood's safe."

Arraignment is scheduled Nov. 12, Thompson said.

In addition to criminal sanctions, prosecutors are seeking more than $30,000 to compensate Huntington Beach for monitoring that was conducted after city officials learned of the false reports.

The company also has conducted environmental testing at the Belmont Learning Center, an old dump beneath the Oxnard Dunes and abandoned oil fields in Santa Fe Springs, Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Brea.

Methane is not toxic when inhaled, but it can cause suffocation by reducing the concentration of oxygen in enclosed places. It is highly flammable, and levels of 5% to 15% in air are explosive.

Thompson said the lack of monitoring could have proved dangerous had the methane built up.

"If it had gone undetected for a period of months, there could have been significant risk," he said.

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