Los Angeles fights toxic-waste dumpers with tough new tactics

Seven years ago, when Fred Martin went to work for Precision Specialty Metals here, the company dumped toxic wastes directly into the city sewer. ``Nobody cared,'' he says.

Now, all that has changed. Mr. Martin, who was plant engineer at the company, is just completing his sentence of 1,000 hours of community service. A company vice-president served 120 days of work-furlough time in prison. And the company was forced to take out a $40,000 full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, warning other companies of the criminal penalties that Precision personnel had to pay for dumping hazardous wastes illegally.

Last year, the company was nabbed by the Los Angeles Toxic Waste Strike Force, one of the most aggressive agencies in the country in prosecuting illicit toxic-waste dumpers. Run from District Attorney Ira Reiner's office by Assistant District Attorney Barry Groveman, the strike force has put nearly a dozen top corporate officers in jail on toxic-waste-dumping charges.

The full-page newspaper ad was a unique approach that the strike force has tried again this year in negotiating a settlement with another illegal dumper, American Caster Corporation. The point is to begin warning companies against committing a crime that most still don't take altogether seriously.

``As far as I'm concerned, these are violent crimes against the community, and they should be treated that way,'' Mr. Groveman says.

Fines against offending companies don't work, he says. They are simply absorbed as a cost of doing business. But putting corporate chairmen, presidents, and vice-presidents in prison is a deterrent, Groveman says.

According to David Roe of the Environmental Defense Fund, Groveman's strike force ``is the closest thing we've got to enforcement in the state.''

Other environmental groups in California and Washington generally agree, citing also some strong Northeastern state programs, especially in New York and New Jersey.

On a local level, the strike force's reputation is unmatched.

Groveman made a true believer of Fred Martin. Precision Metals was under investigation for pouring toxic liquids into the sewer system last year and knew it. Upper management ordered Martin to put in a pirate sewer connection downstream to thwart county investigators.

Martin figured his job was at stake, and he had a new house to pay for. When an informer brought the pirate pipe to light, it became ``dog eat dog'' inside the company, he says. ``Everybody was going to blame somebody else.''

If he could do it over, Martin says he would quit the job before dumping the waste.

He tries to get that message across to other middle managers he deals with in his new job as a sales representative for a different company. At the plants he visits, he says he sees illegal toxic-waste dumping virtually every day. Even on his way to work recently, he spotted what he believes to be chromic acid that had been poured down a storm drain.

Most managers, Martin says, are lackadaisical in their attitudes toward the dangers of toxic wastes and the risks of criminal penalties. They are too occupied with their own immediate disposal problems to fret over the larger picture.

But he also runs into people like the young man who confided in him recently that he is worried his current role in disposing of toxics will land him a sentence like Martin's. He is looking for another job now.

According to Martin, one problem with enforcement is that the six strike-force investigators lack industry experience to know how plants operate and what looks suspicious.

The past year has made an environmentalist of Martin. Manufacturers ``have to realize that they will have to spend the money on the technology to deal with this stuff,'' he says.

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