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Home / Neighborhood / San Gabriel Valley / Pasadena Independent / Part Two: Michael Beck and Toxic Politics

Part Two: Michael Beck and Toxic Politics

by Terry Miller
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Michael Beck has severed ties with two key employees-Photo by Terry Miller

Michael Beck has severed ties with two key employees-Photo by Terry Miller

Part Two: Toxic Politics

Nick Kipley

As stated in part one of this article, and as is stated by his official City of Pasadena online Bio, Michael Beck was in charge of the Department of Public Works (the one managed by Siobhan Foster) and also had oversight of Riverside Municipal Airport, while Assistant City Manager of Riverside.

The Pasadena Bio also states that, “His crowning achievement was the development of the financial plan and implementation of the transformative $1.8 billion Riverside Renaissance program – 30 years of public infrastructure investment in just five years.” (Here is the link itself, in the City’s own words: http://cityofpasadena.net/CityManager/MichaelBeck/)

For Beck, holding these three responsibilities would make him directly responsible for the alleged cover-up of a 2003 toxic waste spill that eventually cost the life of one city worker, and has adversely affected the health of at least six others.

But before getting into the logistics of this toxic waste spill, it is important to discuss allegations of contract steering during this era of Riverside’s redevelopment. It is due to these politics that the toxic spill to be discussed was able to occur in the first place.

Contract steering is when a developer who is connected politically gets a city contract rather than the contract be awarded to the lowest possible bidder. Allegations of contract steering were many during the time when Michael Beck oversaw the Riverside Renaissance.

A former Contract Administrator with the city by the name of Sean Gill was fired from Riverside after alerting his superiors of mishandling of funds designated for public works projects. In a Wrongful Termination lawsuit filed against Riverside in 2011, he named Siobhan Foster as a defendant. Riverside chose to settle his suit by paying Gill five thousand dollars on the condition that the payment of the settlement was not an admittance of wrongdoing on behalf of the City.

In another instance, former Riverside Deputy City Attorney Raychele Sterling claimed that over the course of the twelve years she worked for the city (2000-2012) she saw that officials were deliberately steering construction contracts in excess of ten-million dollars to favor certain developers. Sterling was of course fired for raising accusations that officials were misusing federal money intended for the sewer fund and, like Jason Hunter, has since taken her findings to the Internal Revenue Service and Securities and Exchanges Committee. She was not awarded a settlement and was forced to pay the city’s court fees.

In an official complaint sent to the SEC and IRS, Hunter outlines the plan in its entirety: “In order to finance city projects (golf courses, parks, etc.) without going to the bond market (which would require voter approval), the city of Riverside devised, and then refined a scheme (under the primary guidance of a former CFO/Treasurer/Ass. City Manager Michael Beck) whereby it would grab available capital from its utilities funds reserves … The problem is, the use of those reserves are highly restricted by the City Charter. To get around this and provide ‘legitimacy’ to this scheme, the city created an Interfund/agency Loan Policy (conveniently not mentioning the City Charter) whereby its utilities would make unsecured loans to the City’s General Fund or Redevelopment Authority with their reserves and those two agencies would use the money for unrestricted purposes. This is simply a shell game: you cannot loan money to yourself.” Hunter says that in addition to the SEC and IRS he has also contacted the California Fair Political Practices Commission on misuse of public funds, the State Department of Finance, the Department of Insurance, the Federal Communications Commission, the District Attorney and the Attorney General.

Hunter then goes on to list the city, state and federal laws that this kind of “shell game,” allegedly violates, which include: Section 1204 of Riverside’s City Charter, Riverside City Ordinance 14.04.050 (regarding the use of sewer funds), California Government Code 53601 and California Prop 218.

Beck’s alleged secret policy of intimidating and then laying off whistleblowers working for the City of Pasadena can be explained as a quest for political power. Hunter claims that by manipulating city funds in this way, two things were achieved: “Public works projects [could] be completed that otherwise wouldn’t be on the same timescale, generating political value for elected [officials]. [In addition,] the General Fund from which the majority of salary and benefits for city employees derives from is subsidized.” And when viewing these corrupt dealings in terms of a quest for power, yet another scandal involving Beck in Riverside emerges.

Between 2005 and 2008, several Riverside City executives, including Michael Beck, drove cars with untraceable license plates. Known as “cold plates,” this specific type of license plate is the kind used by undercover police officers. “Cold” plates make any car that they are attached to immune to parking violations, traffic cameras, and are extremely difficult to track in the DMV’s system; they are not intended for civilian use. When the attorney general found out about these allegations they investigated the matter, deemed the plates improper, and had them revoked. The police officers that originally discovered the use of these plates filed a suit against the city. One of the officers, a man named Dave Dominguez, very shortly thereafter retired from Riverside due to what Jason Hunter calls, “being forced out of the institution.”

Dominguez retired from Riverside and went on to become the Chief of Police of Palm Springs, where he served until 2011 before retiring. The Independent could not reach Dominguez for comment on whether or not the city of Riverside chose to settle with him out of court.

The biggest scandal that dwarfs all the others by far involving Beck/Foster has come to be known by Riverside residents simply as, “Ag Park.” “Ag Park,” short for Agricultural Park has become media and activist shorthand for the toxic waste spill and alleged cover-up that happened in a densely populated Riverside neighborhood due to mismanagement on all levels.

As the story goes, in May 2003, a limited liability corporation called, “Friends of the Riverside Airport,” agreed to trade a parcel of land they owned in exchange for the Agricultural Park owned by the City of Riverside that had become an illegal dumping ground for residents, a city dump site for old concrete and asphalt, and a place frequented by teenagers on dirt bikes and local joggers or hikers.

The history of the Ag Park goes back to World War II when the whole immediate area was an agricultural community known as Arlanza; Arlanza was home to a huge military base known as Camp Anza.

Camp Anza was a center where hundreds of thousands of troops headed for the Pacific theatre were processed before being sent off to war. It was an enormous base averaging 40,000 soldiers at any given time. The Camp Anza was so large that it had its own rail line and needed its own sewer system and sewage treatment facility.

To meet these needs, a treatment plant was built by the Army in 1942. This treatment facility was home to several large sewer digesters, concrete bunker-like structures where liquid tons of raw sewage stewed until the matter could break down chemically through natural bacterial processes. This process is aimed at reducing the amount of gas emitted at later stages in the treatment of wastewater.

The war ended in 1945, and the site was maintained by the U.S. government until approximately 1947. After the Army left, the site changed hands from private companies a few times before it was eventually acquired by the City of Riverside in the early 1960s.

At that time, Riverside had just completed a brand new sewage facility near the nearby Riverside Airport so the old army plant was shut down. Then, like many other Southern California cities emerging from World War II, Riverside’s cheap land and available workforce attracted the attention of an aviation company who set up a plant on the site of the old Camp Anza rail line. The company on site currently is Rohr, a subsidiary of Goodrich Aerostructures Group.

When it set up in Riverside; however, Rohr (then known as Rohr Industries and later, Rohr Inc.), had been the company responsible for building the fuel tanks that would carry Charles Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic. During WWII, their Chula Vista plant manufactured fighters and bombers. After the war, Rohr primarily focused on making aircraft engines and components for the boom in demand for commercial jet engines and various spacecraft components.

Rohr broke ground on its Riverside site in 1952 and still does business on that location to this day. The plant now covers 62 acres and has manufactured everything from fighter jet components to rocket nozzles to parts used in communications satellites. Sometime between 1952 and the mid-1960s when the Camp Anza sewage plant was closed, a “significant amount” of toxic chemicals was spilled by Rohr and funneled down floor drains to the sewer. These chemicals included Polychlorinated Biphenyls or PCBs, which were widely used in heavy industry at the time. In the early 1980s, when PCBs were listed as a toxic substance and potentially carcinogenic compound, Rohr paid Riverside $1,000,000 to indemnify themselves against full-blown cleanup costs of the sewer plant. “Why someone in government would agree to do that is beyond me,” Activist Scott Simpson says.

PCBs are an incredibly difficult compound to destroy. After the WWII, they were used without discretion, like asbestos. PCBs were primarily used in the fireproofing of furniture, clothing, floor laminate, and draperies. PCBs share twelve of the same properties as Polychlorinated Dibenzodioxins, or simply “dioxins.” Dioxins are one of the many carcinogenic compounds found in cigarette smoke and can stay preserved in the soil for years. The infamous Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange was a mixture of dioxins. Exposure to both dioxins and PCBs can result in a wide variety of cancers affecting the kidneys and thyroid function.

In 2003, the City of Riverside contracted to co-develop the project with a group known as Friends of the Riverside Airport. The deal struck between the two entities involved a land swap. The City of Riverside would get a parcel of land for its airport, and the Friends of Riverside Airport would get the Ag Park. According to multiple sources, including leaked emails between city officials, Riverside acted as the Planning and Developing agency of the project working alongside F.R.A. to develop the land and sell it off to the real estate company KB Homes.

As it turns out, “Friends of Riverside Airport,” is a limited liability corporation headed by Chuck Cox of Cox Construction, a developer whom activist Vivian Moreno claims the city “favored”.

The day of the spill, the land swap hadn’t gone through escrow and was still owned by the city. No permits to develop the land had been filed by Cox or issued by the city, but he nevertheless begun grating the property on July 1st. Because of Riverside’s policy of political manipulation, their firing of whistleblowers, and their continuous awarding of contracts to politically connected developers, “S*** hit the fan.” Almost literally.

While illegally grating the property one of Cox’s workers hit one of the old sewer digesters, immediately spilling 10,000 gallons of what was assumed to be raw sewage on the property. In an official environmental checklist by Riverside in September 2013 innocuously entitled, “Jurupa Street Extension From The Tract 28987 Boundary To Rutland Avenue,” explains that after the spill, Cox tried to clean the mess up himself. He kept this mistake from the city for a week, ordering his workers to clean up the sludge as best they could. When he hired a truck to come pump out the sludge, the truck driver refused to do it because the waste was unusually acidic and would thus require special handling.

In the same 2013 report, Riverside states that, “Polychlorinated Biphenyl’s heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and explosives compounds,” were discovered in the slurry.

However, the initial lab report prepared for the city by Associated Laboratories in 2003 claims that there was, “No data,” or, “ND,” for Volatile Organic Compounds and also indicates “ND” for the “deadly dozen”: the twelve Organochlorine Pesticides widely used following World War II but banned almost entirely by the 1980s.

These compounds include DDT, Aldrin, Heptachlor, Toxaphene, Chlordane, and others, whose unregulated use peaked in the late 1950s and which would have been widely used in the agricultural fields surrounding the plant in the era in which it was in operation.

Scott Simpson, an activist who has been fighting the city of Riverside over Ag Park for over a decade now, claims that the results of the 2003 lab report may have been deliberately skewed to stress the high levels of PCBs rather than the presence of other substances, like the highly cancerous dioxins which PCBs deteriorate into, or the pesticides which nearly every agricultural field in the U.S. used extensively after the war. Simpson notes that the original 2003 report was ordered by the office of the City Manager and, “Beck would have seen it.”

Cox alerted Riverside a week after the toxic waste had been on the ground and immediately city executives attempting to backpedal. Official City of Riverside email between two city officials dated September 2003, to which Michael Beck is CC’ed, states, “I am not aware of any staff member who knew Cox was on the property. No permit had been issued,” and later, “The City is currently negotiating with Cox, who has verbally agreed to absorb a portion of the clean-up cost. A negotiated apportionment cannot be finalized until the City knows what the maximum cleanup costs will be.”

According to Activist Vivian Moreno, Riverside’s Public Works Department (under Foster, supervised by Beck) then sent out nineteen men from the City to clean up the mess. They worked in the toxic waste for two weeks. Pictures dated mid July 2003 taken by Scott Simpson show city employees wearing no appropriate hazmat gear utilizing city sewer trucks to drain the approximately 40,000 gallons of sludge left in the concrete digester. Of the nineteen men who worked at Ag Park, “Six are now sick and one has passed away,” according to Moreno, “the one who passed away was the [city worker] they actually sent into the digester to collect lab samples. They sent a man into toxic waste, and he died.” Moreno, Simpson, and the 2003 report on the site then say that the toxic waste was taken to the nearby dry beds at the sewage treatment plant. By this point the lab results had come back and a company called Island Environmental was then contracted to dispose of the sludge. In Moreno’s words they “freaked out,” due to the toxicity of the sludge and immediately ordered the removal of not only the sludge but of the sewer beds at the treatment plant where the sludge had been sent to dry. To dispose of the digester, a company called Haz Mat Trans, Inc. removed not only the rest of the concrete but the three feet of dirt directly beneath it. Moreno claims that Siobhan Foster visited the site but “wouldn’t even get out of the car,” to examine the work being done.

The disposal of the sludge has also been criticized. Scott Simpson alleges that the Public Works department under Foster falsified federally required documents regarding the manifest used to ship the hazardous waste. They said that the sludge was “Contaminated soil from a spill,” so that proper disposal would be and burying it at a proper facility. In reality, though, since only 10,000 gallons were spilled on the ground and the rest of the sludge in the tank, a majority of the spill was a liquid slurry of PCBs and only about a quarter of it was “contaminated soil.” Simpson claims that the sludge should have been incinerated at incredibly high temperatures as that’s the federally mandated process to destroy such compounds.

The process of incinerating PCBs can be something like six times as expensive as burying drums of PCB-contaminated soil. Simpson claims that what should have happened was the liquid chemicals be incinerated and the contaminated soil buried. Simpson claims that if the city of Riverside did allegedly mix the sludge with dirt in order to make its disposal cheaper, they effectively defrauded the Federal Government’s requirements for hazardous waste disposal. “Destroying PCBs costs a lot,” Simpson claims, “15 or 20 million dollars to incinerate 40,000 gallons of it. Mixing it with dirt would roughly only cost them about $3.5 million. They did this because they locked in their development deal with Cox and still wanted to build houses there.”

Simpson claims that Foster/Beck’s department might have allegedly committed a series of other federal violations: one of which is that it took Riverside over a month to contact the federal spill hotline. According to Simpson, “[By] Federal law you are supposed to notify [the hotline] immediately, as soon as practically possible,” when dealing with a toxic spill.

Also, proper protocol states that you call the fire department immediately when you encounter unknown chemicals. Simpson claims that hitting a buried sewage digester on an old army base counts very much as “encountering unknown chemicals.”

If Riverside had followed correct protocol, they would have called the Fire Department who would have then called one of the contractors they have “On call 24 hours a day who will scoop the stuff up, package it properly and dispose of it.” He said, “None of that happened. [Siobhan] Foster would have been directly responsible for this but she keeps her name off of anything. It’s not even clear that Hazmat ever got involved. County Hazmat involvement is nonexistent in my cache of documents.”

Throughout this process, the neighborhoods flanking Ag Park were unaware that the spill was anything more than a smelly nuisance. Riverside put up a chain link fence and small signs reading: “Chemicals on this site are known by the State of California to cause cancer,” in concordance with CA Prop 65.

Such signs are required to be placed on older apartment buildings where lead paint might have been used at any time, they must also be placed in stores that sell decorative or commemorative plates (most of which care manufactured these days in China and contain lead based paint), and are also found in every bar in the state of California because alcohol is known to cause cancer. Drug stores that sell Asprin must also furnish these signs because Asprin can cause prenatal defects. As should any restaurant who sells charred meat, which contain trace amounts of the carcinogen known as heterocyclic amines. And, technically speaking, these placards should be placed in any building that utilizes fluorescent lights because fluorescent lights use mercury gas vapor—a mercury or mercury based compound—which technically means the must be disposed of as Hazardous Waste and should CA Prop 65. So needless to say, given the ubiquity of these signs in everyday life, they were ignored and vandalized by graffiti.

In a leaked city email from the Deputy Public Works Director to the Riverside Police Department the ominousness of the chemicals on the site are clearly understood, “Can we have your patrols go by the area occasionally and kick people out for riding their bikes, etc. The area will be fenced so your officers should not enter but hopefully they can just yell over the fence to get any one out.”

“Please. How’s that going to stop a teenage boy from climbing the fence so he can ride his motorcycle?” Moreno says in response.

These days, the residents in the areas who lived closest to Ag Park are experiencing health problems. Many people in these neighborhoods are either on dialysis, have contracted some form of cancer, or are on multiple medications to battle such complications. Most dogs in these neighborhoods currently suffer from, or have died as a result of, the growth of malignant cyst-like tumors. At a recent Riverside City Council meeting, as reported by Vivian Moreno to the Independent, an enraged man demanded of the council: “You do so many favors for all these big companies, I just have one favor to ask of you. I want you to resurrect my wife.” The man’s wife allegedly walked seven miles through the Ag Park every day as part of her exercise regimen and was never made fully aware of the toxicity of the area, according to Moreno.

When the city finally got around to cleaning up Ag Park, eleven years had passed from the initial spill, the recession had ended (Riverside claimed the initial cleanup was halted because of the economy) Beck and Foster were working for the City of Pasadena, and real estate was again rising in value.

The first phase of the cleanup spanned April-July of 2009 when according to a report by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, “about 8,666 tons of soil and 720 tons of concrete containing PCBs concentrations above 50 milligrams per kilogram (MG/kg) were removed during Phase 1 work. 50 mg/kg is the total threshold limit concentration for hazardous waste in California. This soil was disposed of at the Waste Management Incorporated, (WMI) Kettleman Hills [Class 1 hazardous substance] facility in Kettleman City, California.”

Moreno says that if it wasn’t for a public outcry, Phase two of the cleanup might not have happened. The DTSC report also claims that, “Between July 2013 and January 2014 about 166,000 tons of soil were removed during Phase 2 work. 0.22mg/kg was the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional screening level (RSL) for residential use property. The soil was transported to the WMI Azusa Land Reclamation facility, in Azusa, California, for recycling.” According to Moreno and others, that comes out to eighty dump trucks’ worth of dirt every day for six months.

The DTSC’s report makes it very clear that the old Camp Anza sewer plant was never intended as a toxic waste dump and also expressly states: “The area around Riverside Agricultural Park has NOT been designated as a cancer cluster,” and states that, “Neither the Riverside County Department of disease control nor the California Cancer Registry has been informed of cancer concerns in the area. Therefore, the community around the site has not been identified as a cancer cluster.”

However, Moreno, Simpson, and Hunter’s activism have turned up evidence stating the contrary: “We got about 25 families from Ag Park together and [KTLA] Channel 5 [News] did a story on it.” Moreno says, “You will cry when you hear about these people talk about their mothers, their pets, who died or who are sick. When I called Siobhan Foster’s office [in Pasadena] about this he secretary called back and said ‘Siobhan tells me that is a Riverside issue, not a Pasadena issue,’ and I said, ‘Well this is a Siobhan Foster issue.’ We have thousands of documents from lawyers, civil engineers, chemical specialists,” says Moreno, “And we don’t put up with any bad politicians and any bad city employees anymore [in Riverside].”

The city of Riverside continues to this day to develop the land with the Friends of Riverside Airport given the DTSC’s report absolves the site of its toxic legacy. It is currently being considered for residential development yet it is not known by the Independent if KB Homes still wishes to build on the property.

All of this scandal ties in to what Mayor Bogaard and others said at the first Pasadena City Council meeting this year. “We are dealing with a culture of complacency.” Activists like Vivian Moreno and Jason Hunter hold the opinion that this is due in part to a web of corruption that links many of the scandals seen in Southern California over the past decade. Moreno’s personal opinion is that, “The Chamber of Commerce, the National League of Cities, law firms like Best, Best, and Kreiger and accountants like Mayer, Hoffman and McCann are all connected in supporting these massive citywide cover-ups and misuse of funds.”

Although the Independent cannot comment on Pasadena’s relationship with the law firm Best, Best, and Krieger or the National League of Cities and does not wish to report anything that could be read as disparaging towards the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, it is public record that the accountants Mayer, Hoffman and McCann were the accountants who were employed by the City of Pasadena in the years leading up to the during the ongoing $6.5 embezzlement scandal. Mayer Hoffman and McCann were also the accountants who worked for the City of Riverside during the alleged Sewer Fund “Shell Game,” that allowed Michael Beck’s Riverside Renaissance to become such a political success. Finally and—most telling of all—they were the accounting firm who seemingly overlooked the misuse of funds by officials in the City of Bell.

“You need to take your city back,” says Moreno.

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