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Halaco Agrees to Remove Waste Near Wetlands

The Oxnard recycler settles two lawsuits. The cleanup is expected to take years.

October 03, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

An Oxnard metal recycler accused of leaking harmful chemicals into pristine coastal wetlands has settled two environmental lawsuits by agreeing to clean up a massive slag heap and install barriers to prevent pollutants from seeping into the air and water.

Under the agreement, Halaco Engineering Co. will gradually remove a four-story waste pile next to one of the last remaining wetlands in Southern California.

The company would pay annual penalties if it fails to reduce the slag heap over the next 30 years, and Halaco agreed that before this rainy season it planned to take steps to ensure that polluted storm water did not run off the site.

The deal, announced Thursday, resolves state and federal lawsuits against Halaco, which has come under fire from environmentalists and government regulators for years.

"For decades, people and government agencies have been trying to deal with Halaco's slag heap and other problems with the plant," said John Buse, senior staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Center in Ventura.

"We had the lawsuit. It could have gone to the judge to decide, it could have resulted in something more drastic, but we don't know," Buse said. "What we got was something practical."

In 2000, state water quality officials cited Halaco for failing to prevent chemicals from leaking from a mountainous slag heap at its 43-acre property into the wetlands at Ormond Beach, the largest remaining tract of undeveloped coastline in Ventura County.

Specifically, regulators said the metal recycler was discharging ammonia-laced water into the wetlands, which are a magnet for migratory birds and a habitat for endangered fish and bird species. Regulators also found high concentrations of thorium, a radioactive substance, in two sites near the slag heap.

State regulators said the leakage did not pose a public health risk, though the concentration of ammonia was considered toxic to fish and wildlife. The company was later ordered to stop the discharges.

More recently, Halaco was convicted on three misdemeanor charges in Ventura County Superior Court for releasing noxious fumes in violation of state air pollution laws and placed on three years' probation.

The two environmental groups that sued Halaco, the Environmental Defense Center and ChannelKeeper, have labeled the firm one of the worst polluters in California.

Now, representatives of those groups say a change in company management has yielded a new approach toward environmental issues, and they hope the settlement will result in a long-awaited cleanup of the site.

On Thursday, Buse was joined by activists and community members who gathered in a thick fog at Ormond Beach just behind the Halaco plant on Perkins Road, where the company melts scrap metal for recycling.

A graffiti-stained wall separates the rusting industrial plant from the wetlands, where coots and egrets glide among tall reeds a short distance from the ocean.

Drew Bohan, executive director of the ChannelKeeper group in Santa Barbara, stood on the same site three years ago before suing Halaco in state and federal court. On Thursday he detailed the terms of a settlement that he said took years and millions of dollars in attorney fees to negotiate.

Specifically, Bohan said the deal required that Halaco install measures to ensure that noxious fumes and polluted storm water were not released from the site. To comply, Halaco intends to place monitoring equipment on its smokestack and matting on its waste pile before the start of the rainy season.

In coming years, the company must install a substantial barrier to prevent water runoff. It also must pay $60,000 to a nonprofit foundation that would distribute the funds to groups that would use the money to clean up the area.

As for the slag heap, Halaco must remove a percentage of the pile each year or face monetary penalties that would total $500,000 over the 30-year term of the agreement.

"People should understand it will take some time," Bohan said. He acknowledged that removal of the slag heap required authorization by various state and local agencies, and could be complicated if radioactive material is found beneath the 40-foot-high pile.

The settlement is subject to approval by a federal court judge, but parties on both sides said they did not expectthe court to reject the proposal.

"I really do think this is an agreement that is going to be good for Halaco and the community," said John Haack, the company's chief financial officer. "It was a long time in coming."

Haack, an engineer, has served as the chief financial officer for the past year and worked with the two environmental groups to strike an acceptable deal. He would not comment on allegations that Halaco has polluted the environment, saying he could not speak for past practices.

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