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BAD-AIR FEARS DRIVE PARKING SUIT : GROUP WANTS GARAGES TO ALERT MOTORISTS TO TOXINS.

Byline: Anne Burke Daily News Staff Writer

Those parking garages that have sprung up all over Los Angeles may be convenient, but they also could be harming your health, an environmental group claims.

Attorneys for the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation contend that parking garages expose motorists to dangerous levels of auto-emission toxins - carbon monoxide, benzene, and other chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects.

Even underground garages with ventilation systems and above-ground structures that are partially open can be risky for motorists and employees - especially pregnant women and people with heart problems, said Mateel attorney William Verick.

``Basically, if it's got a roof, it's got a problem,'' Verick said. ``Think about what the air tastes like in there. If it tastes bad, it probably is bad.''

Seeking to force garage operators to post warning notices and pay civil penalties, the Humboldt County-based Mateel filed suit under Proposition 65 - the state safe drinking water and anti-toxic act - against about 20 parking garage owners and operators responsible for about 300 facilities in California.

The suits were pending in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Among defendants is the Los Angeles-based Ampco Parking Systems, the state's largest parking garage operator.

The company and a number of other parking garage operators have submitted to Mateel's demand that they post signs warning motorists that fuel emissions inside the structure could cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

``I don't necessarily agree with it, but (signs) are the lesser of two evils,'' said Stanley Long, president of the Los Angeles-based Parking Association of California.

The major issue in the court fight is civil penalties, which can amount to $2,500 a day for each individual exposed during the time that the garage failed to post a warning sign.

The law, passed by voters in 1986, states that businesses that knowingly expose people to dangerous chemicals must provide a clear warning.

``If a woman is pregnant and working in a garage, she needs to know being there can affect the development of her fetus,'' Verick said.

Ampco attorneys and other parking industry representatives claim that garage air is safe.

Ambient air tests conducted by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration at Ampco garages never have resulted in an air quality violation, said Ampco attorney Roger Lane Carrick of Los Angeles.

``We are quite confident the air is fine,'' Carrick said.

But Mateel claims that carbon monoxide levels in even partially enclosed parking garages approach maximum levels set by the Uniform Building Code of 50 parts per million during an eight-hour period.

Carbon monoxide in outside street air measures between one and four parts per million, according to Mateel.

Carrick and other industry representatives suggested that Mateel may be motivated by money.

By law, a private party may lodge a complaint under Proposition 65 and collect a portion of the civil penalty or settlement.

Verick said that Mateel has indeed shared in civil penalties from several Proposition 65 settlements. But he stressed that the financial incentives were purposefully added to the measure to encourage participation by private parties, because government agencies weren't doing their part to enforce toxics laws.

``The bounty . . . is a very critical part of the whole scheme of the things,'' Verick said.

Prompted by Mateel's action, Century Parking Inc., which is not part of the suit, posted warning signs at its 180 California garages, including the partially enclosed, multilevel structure at the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

Century Parking President Rick Wilson thinks the signs are silly, especially considering Los Angeles' chokingly high level of outside pollution.

``A case could be made that the air is worse on the street,'' Wilson said. ``Once the cars are in the garage, they're shut off and not creating any more pollution. At Ventura and Sepulveda boulevards, one of the biggest intersections in L.A., with cars idling, what is that air quality there?''

Garage user Philip Tesler agreed. He has parked for several years in a partially enclosed Ampco garage that is attached to his Sherman Oaks office.

``Look at the fumes you're going to pick up on the streets, anyway, especially if you park several blocks away,'' said Tesler, a certified public accountant.

Others support Mateel's efforts.

``If you've ever walked through or been stuck in an underground garage for any length of time, it's pretty clear what the impacts are,'' said Linda Waade, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air.

Mateel isn't alone in its fight to enforce Proposition 65.

The City Attorney's Office in Culver City is pressing developer Ernest W. Hahn Inc. to pay civil penalties for failing to post warning signs in the parking garage at the Fox Hills Mall, said City Attorney Norman Herring.

The signs are now in place, Herring noted.

``People should be advised of what is in the atmosphere . . . so they can evaluate what the risk is,'' Herring said.

Proposition 65 has resulted in a number of warning signs and labels, among them those posted at service stations and on lawn blowers and lead-glazed dish ware,

The state Attorney General's Office, the government agency that handles Proposition 65 legal actions, has not taken a position on Mateel's suit.

Deputy Attorney General Ed Weil of the office's environmental section said that one factor his agency considers when deciding whether to become involved in a case is if it will spur manufacturers to use fewer toxics.

In the parking case, the result will be strictly educational.

Citing the pending court battle, neither Verick nor Carrick would release results of air toxicity tests.

But the question of how Mateel came by its readings has caused the lawsuit to veer into an unexpected direction.

Ampco has filed a cross-complaint against Mateel, accusing the company of trespassing. According to court documents, a man named Douglas Fir, acting on behalf of Mateel, walked into Ampco garages in the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this year, using a small data recorder he carried in his belt to take air samples.

Mateel wants Ampco's cross-complaint thrown out of court. The environmental group claims it has a First Amendment right to gather and use such information, and that an adverse ruling could have a chilling effect on the way journalists and others do their jobs.

``If a restaurant critic goes to a restaurant and sees a rat scurrying across the floor and reports the vermin, is that trespassing? If you go into a store and notice the fire door is locked, and you write a story, they would be able to sue you for trespassing,'' Verick said.

Carrick said Fir's air testing had nothing to do with the First Amendment.

``Even a reporter can't go in and surreptitiously tape-record people in private places,'' he said.

A hearing on the issue is set for Sept. 6 in San Francisco.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: A sign at the Sherman Oaks Galleria warns of unhealt hful air conditions inside the partially enclosed parking garage.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 25, 1996
Words:1159
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