Down the Drain
A year ago, Kendra Tillery and Aron Gould were local heroes. Under the cover of darkness and using only a video camera, the pair of environmentalists exposed a common practice among Orange County's car dealerships, auto-body shops and gas stations: illegal dumping of oil waste into storm drains and flood-control channels that lead directly to the Pacific Ocean.
Despite their 15 minutes of fame, the couple is back where they started: local sanitation and health officials have yet to stop the dumping.
Tillery and Gould have a personal interest in the problem. They own Polished Perfections, a mobile cleaning business that services car dealerships, gas stations and other industrial sites using an environmentally sensitive method of cleaning contaminated surfaces known as environmental pressure washing. But pressure washing is more expensive than illegal dumping, which may explain why the couple's Cypress-based firm is struggling for business: many local auto dealerships refuse to hire Polished Perfections or companies like it, opting instead to wash their waste—oil, grease, gasoline, solvents and chemicals—directly into nearby storm drains.
In March, Tillery and Gould did what county officials have not: they filed suit against a dozen Orange County dealerships, charging them with discharging contaminated runoff, something the couple asserts is an unfair business practice. The case is still in the discovery stage, but the couple has already settled with one unnamed car dealer for an undisclosed sum.
"There are 140 new auto dealerships in Orange County," Tillery explained. "We did a very conservative estimate and found that 75 gallons of sludge leaves those dealers each week and goes into the storm drains." Year after year of such dumping "amounts to the same amount of pollution in the water off Huntington Beach each year as was created by the Exxon Valdez oil spill," she added.
The couple's odyssey from struggling business owners to headline winners and back again has made them knowledgeable about toxic runoff, one of several suspected sources of contamination in the recent rash of beach closures. They founded the company in 1996, and by early 1998, Tillery said, it was obvious that Polished Perfections' efforts to sell car dealerships on the concept of pressure washing had hit a brick wall. Tillery and Gould turned to surveilling their competition: cheap, fly-by-night contractors who could perform cleanup operations cheaper by doing them illegally. Night after night, the couple raced from one location to the next, videotaping workers as they hosed gallon after gallon of untreated oil, gasoline, solvents and chemicals into nearby storm drains on the short trip to the ocean.
Last year, the couple brought several hours of videotape to the Orange County Environmental Management Agency (EMA). The agency sent warnings to a host of auto dealerships, along with a set of instructions on how to comply with state law. Following its own investigation, the district attorney filed charges against one Fullerton-based cleaning contractor that had allegedly underbid Polished Perfections consistently. The contractor, Jose Guzman, reportedly lacked the appropriate vacuum equipment to safely dispose of the pollution he was being hired to clean.
"It was primarily Kendra's tenacious videotaping and surveillance coupled with the work she had already done that led to our filing a complaint against the contractor," said deputy district attorney Lance Jensen.
Guzman was convicted of several misdemeanor charges and sentenced to two years' probation. Besides that conviction, the couple's crusade won Tillery and Gould glowing coverage on television and in The Orange County Register.
But the praise didn't lead to a renaissance in business opportunities for Polished Perfections. In fact, the couple said the publicity may have alienated many potential customers. Shortly after the Register profiled them in July 1998, Tillery received a threatening phone call at her home. According to the police report, the caller warned the couple to "back off, or the next time you're in the paper, it will be the obituaries." Tillery didn't recognize the voice, and no suspect has ever been identified.
Meanwhile, Tillery and Gould's efforts to pressure county officials—specifically the EMA—to adopt stricter enforcement policies against dealerships and contractors who deliberately dump waste down storm drains has produced little beyond the agency's initial flurry of warnings. "I've spoken to numerous law-enforcement officers who were so completely oblivious to the laws and statutes dealing with illegal discharge into storm drains that they seemed to think this was something only the CIA can handle," said Gould.
Another problem cited by Gould is that the EMA officials work only 9-to-5 shifts. "What if narcotics officers could only work during the day?" he asked. "How many drug dealers do you think they're going to catch? None."
Anyone who tries to reach the EMA department responsible for investigating illegal dumping may encounter the same obstacle faced by the Weekly: the agency's number was busy for two days before we were able to get through to Karen Ashby, manager of the EMA's Environmental Resources Department.
"We have responders on call 24 hours a day," countered Ashby. "There are approximately 20 people in the department, including four people who share the on-call responsibilities."
Ashby acknowledged that her department does not routinely conduct surveillance of the mobile cleaning industry, but rather investigates allegations of illegal dumping once they receive a complaint. "In this incident, we worked with both [Tillery and Gould] and the DA's office,"she recalled, saying that the EMA's decision to send out 150 written warnings to local auto dealerships shows that the agency does indeed take a proactive approach to enforcing Orange County's pollution laws. "We have received a lot of follow-up requests after that mailing from [dealerships], asking for the guidelines, which indicates it was taken seriously by them,"said Ashby. "Ithink the word has gotten out, but it's a slow educational process to get everyone up to speed."
Gould said the experience of the past three years has left him deeply cynical about county officials. "Their belief is that if you're just an average citizen making a beef, you won't have the resources or energy to follow up," Gould said. "They know you're going to be overwhelmed by other things and that you'll eventually go away. That's exactly what they want. Once that happens, they don't have to deal with you anymore."
Tillery agreed, but lest officials think otherwise, she was quick to point out that neither she nor her fiance has any plans to stop agitating for stricter enforcement of pollution laws. "This is our livelihood, and we have nothing but time on our hands," she promised. "We're not going anywhere."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts