SLO faces fines, arrest of workers over toxic dumping
January 10, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
San Luis Obispo is looking at possible civil and administrative fines as well as the arrests of city workers following the dumping of toxic chemicals in a city facility, City Attorney Christine Dietrick told council members and managers Thursday.
The news from Dietrick is a reversal of the position that the city has taken for almost a year that the dumping of the toxic chemicals was neither serious, nor a violation of California’s toxic substances laws. As recently as Dec. 16, the city attorney’s office was reassuring the city council that the dumping did not violate any state regulations.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and other regulatory agencies, started to investigate the deliberate dumping of the chemicals following an exclusive CalCoastNews story on the incident. The state agencies have been interviewing city workers in the wake of the story.
CalCoastNews reported Dec. 16 that Bud Nance, a manager with the city’s utilities department, told several subordinates to empty out cans of acetones, varnish, epoxy, paints and creosotes onto the yard’s asphalt parking lot near a wetlands area.
The city attorney’s office sent an email to council members and CalCoastNews following the publication of its story claiming that dumping chemicals on asphalt is an “acceptable method to dispose of latex paint.” Andrea Visveshwara, assistant city attorney, said that after the city dries out approved coatings, they scrape them up and toss the dried paint into the garbage.
Other chemicals were dumped as well, Visveshwara, wrote.
“Unfortunately, in the midst of the latex paint cans, other coatings were present and included in the processing,” Visveshwara said.
The city attorney said that the “accidental” addition of other chemicals did not require reporting to the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
When CalCoastNew broke the story of the dumping, the city responded, claiming in an email to CalCoastNews that the incident occurred on Feb. 2, 2011, that the products were primarily latex paint, that the chemicals were contained to asphalt and that they were cleaned up the day they were dumped.
However, dated pictures show the spill occurred in the middle of January 2011, that the chemicals spread from the asphalt onto soil, that the chemicals were not primarily latex paint and that city workers did not start to clean up the mess for about two weeks. One photograph shows that out of nine legible cans only one is latex.
The city also began damage control. City employees, who had dumped the chemicals or who were aware of the dumping, were ordered to work overtime on the Saturday and Sunday following the CalCoastNews story that exposed the issue, an employee said. During the two days of meetings, city management repeatedly told the employees the city’s official version of the incident while asking who had leaked information about the dumping.
Two weeks after the dumping, city staff asked Kerry Boyle, the city’s hazardous materials coordinator and a certified unified program agency inspector to examine the site. Until Thursday, it appeared city management supported Boyle’s conclusions.
“After observing the spill and conducting further investigation, Mr. Boyle concluded that approximately two to three gallons of creosote and oil-based paints from partially filled containers had spilled. In light of the small quantity of material, and the fact that the spill was contained on pavement, in his capacity as CUPA Inspector, Mr. Boyle concluded that the spill did not pose a risk to human health or the environment, and in addition, did not constitute a significant release triggering any reporting requirements,” Visveshwara said in her Dec. 16 email.
Nevertheless, it is illegal to dispose of hazardous waste including latex paints in the garbage, down storm drains, or onto the ground, according to the California Department of Resources, Recycling, and Recovery website.
Under the city’s stormwater and industrial waste permits, city staff was required to report the illicit chemical discharge to 12 agencies. DTSC requires reporting within 15 minutes of a purposeful chemical release and levels fines of up to $25,000 a day until properly reported. If the fines were imposed based on the date that the dumping occurred, the city would owe about $8.8 million.
Prior to the CalCoastNews story about the chemical dump, DTSC Public Information Officer Charlotte Fadipe said the agency was unaware of the alleged toxic release.
“Responsible stewardship of hazardous waste materials is critical, and we will work to address the alleged violations, and to evaluate possible impacts to the environment,” Fadipe said. “We will work with those involved to make sure this does not occur again.”