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Recycling firms pose danger, but oversight is lax: L.A. Now Live

August 13, 2012 |  8:11 am

Los Angeles Times staff writer Jessica Garrison will join City Editor Shelby Grad to discuss her investigative report into the boom in metal recycling firms, the health and safety risks they pose and the lack of state oversight and inspection.

The live chat is scheduled for 9 a.m.

In her report, Garrison noted that in the last three years, at least 23 fires and explosions have occurred at scrap metal facilities in California, according to fire officials, fire department records and media accounts. At least five people have died in workplace accidents and at least 35 have suffered serious injuries, according to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Two of the deaths occurred on the same day in June in separate Central Valley accidents.

Over the same three-year period, at least 20 other people, including firefighters and nearby residents, have required medical treatment for burns, poisonous gas exposure or smoke inhalation caused by accidents, interviews and records show.

Though they commonly handle hazardous materials and sometimes are situated in residential neighborhoods, the firms are subject to inconsistent oversight by a patchwork of agencies. Many are rarely, if ever, inspected.

In some cases, authorities are ill-prepared to handle emergencies.

"This whole underground economy has grown up," said Brian Johnson, the recently appointed head of enforcement for the state toxic substances department. "On the regulatory side, there are so many agencies that potentially can be involved ... and the level of coordination among the agencies has not really kept up with the growth in the industry."

Johnson said he got a firsthand look at the problem during a recent tour of scrap metal yards in South Los Angeles. "What I saw out there reminded me very much of Third World practices at some of the facilities," he said.

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