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Site's toxic legacy lingers

Amvac and the state have spent years negotiating a cleanup of the company's Commerce factory.

April 08, 2007|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

Amvac's headquarters in Newport Beach gleams with dark paneling and marble desks, a testament to success. But another part of the company's history lies beneath its factory in Commerce -- a legacy of pollution buried in the soil.

The land is contaminated with a variety of pesticides, according to state records.

After more than a decade of negotiations, Amvac and California's Department of Toxic Substances Control have yet to agree on a cleanup plan.

Department officials said they do not consider the site an immediate danger, because many of the hot spots are small and deep underground. There are no signs that contaminants have entered groundwater, according to the state toxic substances control department

Still, "the danger in pesticides is inherent," said Yolanda Garza, director of permits for the department's Southern California branch. "There are going to be actions required. It's a matter of deciding to what level the department wants the cleanup to occur."

Amvac Chief Executive Eric G. Wintemute said the pollutants were in trace amounts that posed no threat to public health.

"Our belief is that any trace amounts of chemicals that are there are in a position where they are not of any risk to anybody," Wintemute said.

Los Angeles County health officials first documented contamination at the plant in the 1970s, apparently resulting from workers dropping bags of pesticide during loading operations at the Commerce rail yards, which back up to the Amvac factory.

After a cleanup, the county declared in 1982 that Amvac's site was decontaminated, records show.

Then in August 1991, a state investigator noticed piles of orange and yellow powder on the railroad tracks just outside the company's fence, records show.

Tests of the piles and nearby soil found that they contained dangerous levels of pesticides and the highly toxic chemical dioxin.

Amvac officials eventually told state officials that they had run into troubles making a pesticide called PCNB.

In cleaning out chemical residues in machinery used to make the pesticide, company workers would occasionally "throw the clod over the fence," according to state records.

In April 1994, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed felony charges against Amvac, company President Glenn A. Wintemute and two others.

Court records show that three months later, the company agreed to pay $460,000 in fines and restitution fees and plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of illegal waste dumping.

Soon after, the state toxics department began to work with Amvac on a plan to clean up the site. Amvac and the state have spent much of the last 11 years trying to determine which pesticides are present and where. The company has paid to clean up the rail yards, but decontamination of the factory site has been delayed by disagreements over testing standards and other issues.

Both sides predict that the process will be complete within a few years.

"We are making progress," said Kelly Kozuma, an Amvac spokeswoman.

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