An Oxnard metal recycler convicted of fouling the air near its shoreline plant was placed on probation for three years Wednesday and ordered to pay a $7,500 fine.
The terms of probation require that Halaco Engineering Co., which recycles aluminum and magnesium scrap, install new monitors to detect air emissions and hire a consultant to recommend ways to better train workers and comply with environmental laws.
"This is a good day for the air quality of Ventura County," said Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Mitchell Disney, who prosecuted the company. "They must obey all laws, and they must implement air pollution control measures."
Disney and attorneys for Halaco negotiated the terms of probation at Ventura County Superior Court, after the company balked at tougher requirements that would have included a hefty fine as well as the corrective measures. Lawyers on both sides called the terms approved by Judge Charles McGrath a fair compromise.
In addition to the new monitoring equipment, which includes a leak detector and a meter on its air filter system, for one year Halaco must turn over records generated by those devices to county inspectors.
The company could have faced up to $81,000 in fines. Halaco attorney Arthur Fine said the required upgrades would likely exceed that amount and represent a better use of company funds to ensure compliance with air quality regulations.
"I think it made sense for both [the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District] and Halaco," Fine said.
Mike Villegas, executive director of the district, said the sentence was less than he had hoped for, but called it a step in the right direction.
"A larger fine isn't going to do much for the residents who are complaining," he said.
The Air Pollution Control District has received 97 complaints about the recycler's operations in the last three years, making Halaco one of the largest targets of such complaints in the county. On Aug. 19, jurors found Halaco guilty of three misdemeanors for allowing a plume of poisonous smoke to drift from its plant in violation of state law.
An Oxnard city employee observed the plume Jan. 8 and filed a complaint with the district. An inspector for the agency responded and cited Halaco for violating state law.
At trial, Halaco lawyer Ronald DiNicola said company employees had shut down the plant's air filter system to clean it and inadvertently forgotten to close a fume hood on a smelting furnace. He said the mistake did not warrant a criminal conviction. But jurors interviewed after the verdict said they believed Halaco should have done more to train workers and comply with environmental laws.
The verdict marked the first time a corporation has been convicted of criminal charges in Ventura County for polluting the air, Disney said.
It was also a blow to the small 40-year-old company, which had never faced criminal charges, despite a long history of regulatory and legal troubles.
The Environmental Protection Agency sued Halaco in 1980, saying it was discharging waste into sensitive wetlands next to its 43-acre plant at Ormond Beach. After a series of claims and counterclaims, the state Supreme Court ruled in Halaco's favor. In 1986, the same court rejected a push by the California Coastal Commission for tighter pollution standards.
Since then, a Santa Barbara-based environmental group has sued Halaco in federal and state courts for allegedly releasing toxic materials into the air and water.
And last year, state and local prosecutors sued the company for allegedly dumping and burning motor oil at the plant. A trial date is set for September 2004.
Disney said Halaco has been resistant to the type of upgrades required under the terms of probation in the past. But Fine said the company has been working with regulators to resolve those conflicts.