A recycler is under investigation by state, county and city agencies that are pressing the firm to clean up more than 15,000 tons of shredded paper, plastic products and other discards now moldering at sites in Long Beach and Riverside County.
The investigations into Mission Fiber Group were launched less than a month after a 60-foot mountain of recyclables near the Port of Long Beach caught fire in what authorities say were suspicious circumstances. Officials now fear the foul-smelling heap could erupt in flames again and have been monitoring its internal temperatures with 6-foot-long thermometers.
Also of concern is a far larger quantity of material stockpiled near the eastern Riverside County agricultural community of Blythe.
"They do not have a conditional-use permit to store that material in the Blythe area," Riverside County Fire Department Division Chief Raymond P. Paiz said Saturday. "Our big concern is the production of a toxic smoke plume in the event of a fire."
The heaps are odd collections of recyclables and trash -- including newspapers, basketballs, wire, milk cartons, rugs, plastic toys, containers, garden hoses, bras and teddy bears.
Code enforcement authorities have ordered Mission Fiber to clear both sites by Friday. The company has been hauling some of the Long Beach material to local dumps.
Mission Fiber President Matt Collins said it was "heartbreaking" to think that the business designed to reduce the flow of waste and non-biodegradable plastics to landfills has been forced to send thousands of tons of material collected from throughout the state to dumps. In addition, he said, "unfortunately, the material was not insured as an asset."
Mission Fiber obtains the material, a mixture of recyclables and trash, then ships it to markets in China and the Philippines where it is sorted and processed. Company officials said that, ideally, the material is collected and shipped overseas in a matter of days.
But the material began backing up over the summer, and the piles began to accumulate on land the company leases in Long Beach and owns in Blythe.
Talin V. Yacoubian, the attorney representing Mission Fiber in legal battles with authorities in Long Beach, Los Angeles County, Riverside County and the California Department of Conservation's Beverage Container Recycling Fund, declined to comment.
But a lawsuit Yacoubian filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Dec. 6 blamed the company's problems on two recycling firms and three individuals allegedly out to destroy the business by making disparaging remarks to customers and providing confidential information to industry regulators.
Mission Fiber officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. But in a telephone interview, Collins acknowledged that his Long Beach site had "accumulated a lot more material than it should have; it got out of control."
But he also said that Mission Fiber, which recently had its conditional business license revoked by Long Beach, "follows the appropriate regulations."
Mission Fiber had already been ordered by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to reduce the height of the Long Beach pile to 20 feet when it caught fire at about 1 a.m. on Oct. 22, company officials said.
Arson investigators are trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which company officials said had destroyed nearby security cameras.
Unspecified items, including security video monitors, were stolen during a burglary at the site a few days after the fire, according to a spokesman for the firm who asked that his name not be used.
"It was an unfortunate streak of bad luck," the spokesman said.
Workers have been churning the pile with earthmovers as part of an effort to reduce heat generating from within it. The pile has deteriorated into soggy compost.
About 180 miles east, Blythe residents are worried that hundreds of bales of recyclables stacked 18 feet high less than a mile south of the Blythe Chamber of Commerce could catch fire and endanger the community with potentially toxic smoke and ash.
"The county of Riverside wants it moved out of there now," Collins said. "But the logistics of moving that material, and where to move it, are not easily resolved."
Hoping to create a new home for the trash, Mission Fiber has offered to buy 70 acres zoned for industrial uses in Salome, Ariz., an isolated desert burg about 50 miles east of Blythe, according to Barbara Cowell, the firm's commercial real estate agent. That land, she said, was priced at about $15,000 to $20,000 an acre.
Moving the material cannot happen soon enough for Blythe Assistant City Manager Charles "Butch" Hull. Striding through a path in a canyon of crumbling bales, Hull shook his head and said: "It's right next door. It smells. We're afraid there might be a fire here. Our city is a victim of this illegal action, and we want it out of here. Now."