An embattled Oxnard metal recycler that has been under fire by environmentalists and government regulators for years is now facing criminal charges for allegedly releasing noxious fumes in violation of air pollution laws.
The charges represent the latest attack on Halaco Engineering Co., a small corporation that filed for bankruptcy protection last year amid state and federal lawsuits alleging that its beachside recycling operations have released toxic materials into the air and water.
On Wednesday, prosecutors launched a three-count misdemeanor case against Halaco in Ventura County Superior Court. The company faces $25,000 or more in fines if convicted of violating provisions of an air quality permit regulating its operations.
Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Mitchell Disney told jurors in his opening statement that Halaco put profits before people earlier this year when it allowed poisonous smoke to drift out of its plant and over nearby businesses.
An Oxnard city employee saw the plume Jan. 8 and filed a complaint with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, which led to the criminal charges.
"He could taste the metal as the smoke drifted from every nook and cranny of this building," Disney told jurors, referring to Halaco's plant.
The prosecutor said evidence to be presented in the coming days will show Halaco did not follow permit requirements designed to keep harmful smoke from drifting into the environment.
But Ronald DiNicola, a Los Angeles attorney representing Halaco, told jurors in his opening remarks that there was no permit violation. He said employees shut down the plant's air filter system the afternoon of Jan. 8 to clean it. DiNicola acknowledged that one worker forgot to close an air-filtering lid on a piece of machinery but dismissed it as a mistake that does not warrant a conviction.
"From our perspective, there was no criminal conduct here," he told jurors.
The case represents the first time Halaco has been charged criminally in its nearly 40-year history, DiNicola said later in an interview.
He noted that the company has successfully fended off previous lawsuits and suggested that criticism of Halaco's operations comes as a result of residential development at odds with the recycler's industrial operations. The past legal challenges, and those still pending, have generally taken aim at impurities washed or burned off during Halaco's recycling operations.
The facility takes aluminum and magnesium scrap metal, melts it down and recycles it, then sells it to other companies, such as soda bottlers and car companies. It employs about two dozen workers and is situated on a 43-acre Oxnard site, on the edge of the pristine Ormond Beach wetlands.
The Environmental Protection Agency sued the company in 1980, saying it was discharging waste into those wetlands.
Eight years later, after a series of claims and counterclaims, the California Supreme Court ruled in Halaco's favor, saying the EPA had doctored some of its paperwork. In 1986, the same court rejected a push by the California Coastal Commission for tighter pollution standards at the plant.
Recently, Halaco sued officials with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, alleging that they had overstepped their roles and were trying to run the recycler out of business.
Not long after, a Santa Barbara-based environmental group sued Halaco in federal and state court for releasing toxic materials into the air and water.
Those cases, stalled by the bankruptcy filing, are back on track after a temporary stay that was lifted about two weeks ago, said Linda Krop, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.
Meanwhile, a trial date has been set for next year in another pollution suit. Last year state and county prosecutors filed a complaint alleging that workers had illegally dumped or burned motor oil at the plant.
Times staff writer Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.