San Luis Obispo conceals toxic waste release
December 16, 2011
By KAREN VELIE
Eleven months after a San Luis Obispo city employee dumped toxic chemicals at a public facility, city officials have still not reported the illegal discharge to state authorities as required by law.
The failure to report the spill could leave the city with fines totaling more than $1 million.
“I would hate to imagine the fines that could result from this mess,” Doug Dowdin, a city storm water enforcement official says in a Feb. 2 email to fellow employees. “I am sure that I don’t have to stress the potential liability.”
In mid January 2011, an angry city employee told several subordinates to pour out cans of acetones (solvents), varnish, epoxy, creosote, enamel paint and latex paint. The chemicals were dumped on an asphalt parking lot that abuts a grassy area. Paint and chemicals swirled together creating areas thick with paint and a lower section that included open soil coated with acetones, varnishes and creosotes.
Waste water collections supervisor Bud Nance had told the staffers to remove the contents of the hazardous waste storage shed at the city corporation yard on Prado Road and empty cans in the yard.
“It is illegal to dispose of hazardous waste in the garbage, down storm drains, or onto the ground, according to the California’s Department of Resources, Recycling, and Recovery website. “Chemicals in illegally disposed hazardous waste can be released into the environment and contaminate our air, water, and possibly the food we eat.”
Banned substances include latex paints, oil based paints and solvents, according to the state’s website.
Several of the chemicals poured out in the yard can affect health especially if leached into the ground or water supply.
Nance refused to answer questions about the spill, hanging up during an interview.
Nance ordered the dumping because he was angry with the city, several employees including supervisors said. Nance’s supervisors had questioned him about his relationship with a female coworker. And, he was upset because the city had investigated and wrote up a friend, Ron Faria, for taking a city lawn mower, they said.
City emails show fellow employees including Dave Hix, a San Luis Obispo wastewater division manager, chastising Nance for his actions.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Hix said in a Feb. 2 email to Nance.
Nance said he thought the spill was “a bit blown out of proportion and this event did not need to bring out the Calvary and waste staff time,” in a Feb. 2 email. He rebuffed several requests by Dowden that he take hazardous waste training saying he “had no interest.”
Dowden replied that the training was required because the chemicals had been dumped.
“The training component I offered up is a mandatory BMP (best management practice) after an illicit discharge of this nature, not only under San Luis Obispo’s permit, but under the EPA, DTSC, RCRA and etcetera regulations, so if utilities still doesn’t want the training that is up to you,” Dowden said in a Feb. 3 email to Nance.
The state requires notice of accidental or deliberate spills of hazardous waste within 15 minutes. The purposeful release of hazardous waste including acetones, creosotes and enamel paints would need to be reported to the environmental protection agency regardless of the amount, according to the State Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Failure to properly report a hazardous chemical spill includes a $25,000 a day fine until the incident is properly reported, state officials said.
City officials have tried to keep mum about the spill. A string of emails show some San Luis Obispo city employees attempting to downplay or hide the problem.
“As a follow-up to the incident concerning the illicit discharge of hazardous waste (i.e., paint) into the environment near a wetland at the back of the corporation yard by staff in Utilities, Freddy, myself and Kerry Boyle can put together some training for your staff concerning the proper containment, labeling, storing, inspection policies, leak containment and management and disposal of hazardous materials asap, so that we can avoid future incidences like the one that just occurred at the corporation yard in the future,” Dowdin says in an email to Dave Hix and three others on Feb. 2.
Some city employees and management have taken a don’t tell or downplay stance, while others are concerned with the affect the spill and the cover-up could have on the city.
Nance and San Luis Obispo Fire Department Hazardous Materials Coordinator Kerry Boyle claim the cans were primarily latex paint and the spill was no big deal.
But, photos and emails make it clear that it was much more than latex paint.
One photo shows more than nine legible can labels; only one is latex paint. Other labels show epoxy, rust remover, stain and enamel paint.
City Attorney Christine Dietrick called several employees, including Boyle, and ordered them to either refer all calls about the issue to her or to only interview via email, after learning of the CalCoastNews investigation.
Employees said Dietrick was insistent that the dump consisted primarily of latex paint and was not large enough to mandate an official report.
However, several upper level employees such as Tim Girvin, the city’s chief building official, say otherwise in emails following the illicit discharge.
“This issue is clearly related to hazardous waste,” Girvin said in a Feb. 14 email.
Two weeks after the chemicals were poured out on the ground, city management asked San Luis Obispo Fire Department Hazardous Materials Coordinator Kerry Boyle to inspect the site. Information from employees and dates on photos show the chemicals had been soaking into the ground for about two weeks before the city called the inspector.
Boyle determined the release did not “meet a reporting threshold,” said Aaron LaBarre, supervising environmental health specialist for San Luis Obispo County Environmental Health Services.
But, state law requires that intentional spills of hazardous waste be reported.
Boyle said that it was not his job to report the spill.
“Public works poured out the chemicals, it is their responsibility to report it, not mine, Boyle said.
Pouring out chemicals on asphalt was “stupid,” Boyle told CalCoastNews. But, he claimed the spill was not large enough to make it to a local waterway that lies less than 200 feet from the dump site. He also said that he did not think the spill leached into the ground water.
“I said it was very poor judgment,” Boyle said. “You do not mix creosotes, varnishes and oil based paints. I am OK with the latex paint.”
Other city experts said otherwise.
“Acetones can pass through the asphalt and easily penetrate soil to reach ground water, said an employee who asked not to be named to protect his job.