San Mateo County DA targets environmental lawbreakers 

Polluting businesses beware: San Mateo County’s top prosecutor has made cracking down on environmental violations a top priority of his administration.

District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe has assigned one of his deputies full-time to prosecute environmental cases — a duty that only got 25 percent of a prosecutor’s time before.

“It’s one of the more important areas to our community because the danger is so widespread,” Wagstaffe said this week. “The danger of thieves and robbers is certainly out there, but the danger from environmental concerns affects a broader expanse of our community.”

Since taking office in January, Wagstaffe has announced an $850,000 judgment against a South City meat processing plant for a 2009 ammonia leak, as well as a joint settlement with other prosecutors and Target for improper waste disposal.

Now, Wagstaffe is seeking at least $700,000 in penalties against defunct Burlingame biotech company Metrigen and two employees, who allegedly hired a moving company to dispose of potentially explosive chemicals in cardboard boxes.

The movers put the boxes in a San Bruno recycling dumpster where they were found by a local employee who called 911, according to a complaint filed in December. In court papers, Metrigen denies “intentionally disposing or causing the disposal of a hazardous or extremely hazardous waste at a non-authorized point.”

County health inspectors typically give the owners a chance to correct violations they find before referring the most egregious cases to Wagstaffe’s office, said Environmental Health Director Dean Peterson.

That includes the Columbus Company case, in which more than 200 pounds of ammonia was released from a refrigeration system, sending 17 workers to the hospital. The settlement, in which Columbus did not admit wrongdoing, requires the company to install ammonia sensors, alarms and a telephonic notification system and pay $850,000 in penalties and response costs — the biggest fine in county history, Wagstaffe said.

Columbus CEO Tim Fallon said the leak resulted from a contractor’s faulty work on upgrading the ammonia handling system.

Wagstaffe also joined 20 other California district attorneys March 3 in settling allegations that Target improperly handled or disposed of hazardous materials at more than 290 stores.

Although an investigation found no violations at local stores, San Mateo County will receive about $200,000 of the $22.5 million statewide settlement, Wagstaffe said.

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Shaun Bishop

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