A truckload of scrap is delivered to C&M Metals in Los Angeles, one of… (Christina House / For the…)
Los Angeles city prosecutors Wednesday took the unusual step of filing criminal charges against the owners of three metal recycling businesses, accusing them of illegally handling hazardous waste and allowing toxic chemicals to be released into storm water.
"These facilities pose a significant threat to human health and the environment," said Patty Bilgin, who heads the Los Angeles city attorney's environmental justice unit. "These are toxic chemicals. We don't know where they are going."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 08, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Metal recyclers charged: An article in the June 28 LATExtra section about criminal charges filed against metal recycling businesses accused of mishandling toxic waste omitted the word "put" from a statement by Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry. Perry said she hoped that the charges sent a message to "any company that chooses to put profit before community health that we are watching and will not take these actions lightly."
The conditions inspectors found in some of the facilities were "inherently dangerous," Bilgin said. Among other things, the criminal complaint said there were puddles of oil on the ground and stacks of refrigerators and radiators -- which had not been properly drained of hazardous chemicals -- mixed in with scrap metal.
Prosecutors charged Jong Uk Byun, who owns Central Metal on South Alameda Street, with eight misdemeanor counts, including one related to runoff of water contaminated with copper, lead and zinc.
Geovedy and Waihner Cifuentes, owner and manager of CDL Scrap Metal on Mateo Street downtown, were charged with nine counts, including mishandling hazardous waste, illegally discharging polluted water and operating without a permit.
Don Monroe, the owner of C&M Metals on 24th Street, faces 13 similar counts.
If convicted, each business owner could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and up to a year in jail, prosecutors said.
Waihner Cifuentes said he was taken by surprise. "I did not know. I have not received anything," he said. He added that after inspectors visited his property earlier this year, "I did everything they told me.... We have everything in order here."
A person answering the phone at Central Metal said "nobody is aware of this" and had no further comment.
Monroe of C&M Metals said the charges "come as a shock" because he thought he had done his best to comply with what regulators asked.
The city attorney's office filed the charges after numerous agencies, including the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hazardous materials division and the regional water board, conducted inspections in February.
Recycling scrap metal -- much of it shipped to factories in Asia -- is a booming business in Central and South Los Angeles, and many environmental groups complain that some outfits violate environmental laws with impunity.
Councilwoman Jan Perry, a mayoral candidate who represents the area where two of the businesses operate, said she hopes the charges send a "loud and clear" message "to any company that chooses to profit before community health that we are watching and will not take these actions lightly."
Liz Crosson, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper, an environmental group that has sued several metal recycling operations for violating the federal Clean Water Act, also welcomed the action.
"It's important that polluters be held accountable," she said. "Contributing pollutants like toxic metals to our waterways is a criminal action."
Her group earlier this month filed a federal lawsuit against C&M Metals accusing it of allowing water contaminated with toxic metal to drain into Ballona Creek, which empties into the ocean near Marina del Rey.