What to Know
Years before a toxic fire, the owner of the facility was cited for environmental health violations.
Regulators say complex rules about operations for hazardous materials sites leave residents in danger.
Tens of thousands of California residents live nearby small facilities that use hazardous materials.
Months after the cleaning crews have gone, Juan Rosas has to be careful walking in his backyard.
He's still finding charred debris in the lawn from a fire that erupted at a scrap-metals recycling plant behind his property in the tiny southeast Los Angeles County city of Maywood nearly four months ago.
"We're still trying to deal with the cleanup," Rosas said. "It's like moving into your own house again."
A brick wall was the only thing separating Rosas' property from Panda International Trading Co. when an intense, chemical-driven blaze ripped through the building June 14, fueling magnesium explosions, sending noxious fumes across the region and prompting lengthy evacuations for nearby residents – including Rosas, his brother and their elderly parents.
Now the focus of a U.S. EPA Superfund Response Team cleanup that could cost more than a million dollars, advocates say the Maywood site exemplifies a statewide danger that residents don't even know exists: hundreds of businesses using poorly regulated, potentially dangerous materials operating anonymously right next door to homes.
The complex laws regarding inspection and enforcement of hazmat rules leave tens of thousands of residents and first responders vulnerable to unknowable health hazards, even regulators say. Many of the companies of concern are small operations in mixed zones that allow both homes and business.
Documents obtained by NBC4 show Panda International had drawn the attention of county and state investigators for environmental health violations years before it was destroyed.
Court records show the company and its owner, Da Xiong "David" Pan, were cited by the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control for hazardous waste violations in 2008 and were the focus of a criminal investigation stemming from an allegation of illegal dumping in 2013.
David Pan pleaded guilty Sept. 14 to felony charges stemming from an allegation that the company released toxic levels of metal particulates onto a sidewalk out front of the plant on Fruitland Avenue in 2013. Pan was given three years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and was ordered to pay more than $53,500 in restitution.
His attorney, Salvatore Coco, said his client also agreed not to run a business that operates with hazardous materials.
"I don't think he's that familiar with the rules and regulations," Coco said.
The documents also reveal that just one week before the fire, inspectors investigated a suspicious plume of smoke that rose from the building – the result of a chemical reaction involving acid in a space Pan rented to a tenant who ran a second operation.
While officials can't conclusively determine whether or not any of the previous violations are connected to the fire, residents say they are still angry that they had no idea what was going on in the business next door.
"We go to fast food restaurants. They get an A and everybody gets to see it," Rosas said. "Maybe we should do the same for companies here."
Residents in Maywood say they want to know about the potential dangers from such businesses, especially when they're right next to residential neighborhoods.
"The story gets bigger and bigger because new revelations are brought forward," said Sandra Orozco, an activist who's lived in Maywood for 45 years. "Hazmat did not do their job and the local city did not do their job. This makes me very angry.
"What other buildings that are similar are not being focused on?"
Changing the Rules
Some officials agree, and are calling for an overhaul of the way these businesses are regulated.
Currently, the inspectors work to get companies to comply with the rules, and most do. Rarely, if ever, is a business shut down for violating health, safety or environmental regulations.
Bill Jones is the chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Division and is considered a statewide expert on hazardous waste facility regulation. He said his inspectors did the right thing June 7, when they responded to the report of the smoke above Panda International.
When they arrived that afternoon, inspectors found a newly constructed room containing barrels of nitric and hydrochloric acid, substances that can burn skin and require protective gear to handle. The acid belonged to a tenant of Pan’s, who was leasing a small space for his own business.
Inspectors called the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control, which had a pending case against Pan, and the fire department ordered Pan’s tenant to cease operations until they could check on his compliance during a surprise re-inspection within 30 days.
"What we initiated was appropriate," Jones said. "We initiated an investigation; we started calling other agencies that might have an involvement. We started to proceed in a direction that would hopefully end up with him either getting the appropriate permits or closing down his business. We don't say, 'shut down your business.' We say, 'take care of these problems or obtain the appropriate permits before you operate.'"
Jones recognizes the rules need to be tightened to prevent another Maywood.
The recommendations include: streamlining the layers of local, state and federal agencies regulating these businesses, establishing a more complete list of chemicals businesses are required to report, and creating more transparency about what's happening at these warehouses.
"We have the most facilities in the state, and I think we do a pretty good job in terms of enforcing the laws and taking appropriate action when it's called for," Jones said. "But it's a constant challenge that all of us face to maintain that presence on a routine basis."
The so-called Fruitland Magnesium Fire engulfed Panda International Trading Company, burned neighboring businesses, knocked out power and prompted the evacuation of 300 people, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Arson Report.
Streets were shut down. The Red Cross was called in.
The fire also presented a challenge for firefighters and deputies who converged on the scene.
They were forced to relocate their command posts to avoid the toxic fumes and the water firefighters were using to try to douse the flames caused explosions from reactions with magnesium stored inside the warehouse.
About two hours into the firefight, commanders decided they'd allow the fire to burn itself out.
"They had no choice but to let the fire smolder and could no longer fight the fire, due to the volatile metals and chemicals they came across during their attempt to put out the fire," the arson report said.
An investigation into the cause of the fire was stymied because the "caustic chemical fueled fire and contamination created a dangerous health hazard preventing a fire scene investigation," sheriff’s investigators wrote in the arson report.
"Based on the inability to conduct a proper and safe fire scene investigation, the origin and cause of this fire could not be determined and is suspicious due to the circumstances surrounding the business," Sheriff's Sgt. Derek Yoshino wrote in his arson report.
A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Response Team called in to help with the investigation backed out due to the health and safety risks.
"We observed very large fire debris piles, partially collapsed roof with suspended beams, hazardous chemical puddles mixed with water all throughout the property," Yoshino wrote in his arson report. ... "The chemical dangers and risks outweighed the need to place arson investigators at danger by allowing them to process the fire scene for an origin and cause investigation."
The severity of the situation in Maywood has drawn the attention of legislators. U.S. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who represents the area, toured the site after the fire and vowed to lend federal assistance.
"This is a very serious matter," she said in a statement. "While primarily a local issue, I will continue my work with the EPA to see if there is a role the federal government can play in addressing this matter and in preventing such tragedies in the future."
Meanwhile, residents are still waiting for their neighborhood to get back to normal.
While the EPA figures its next steps on cleanup, the site sits surrounded by a chain-link fence covered with black material. A security guard keeps watch.
The view from backyards behind the former business is of a blackened, corrugated roof held up by large beams. A burned tire smell occasionally wafts through the neighborhood.
"Everyone here is extremely lucky," said Rosas. "This situation could have been much, much worse."