Charges filed against metal company for illegally disposing waste near high school in Watts

The owners of Atlas Metal have been charged with illegally disposing hazardous waste at its facility, some of which also got onto the campus of Jordan High School in Watts. 

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced Wednesday that a 24-count complaint was filed against S&W Atlas Iron and Metal Corp., and its owners.

The company and its owners, Gary Weisenberg and Matthew Weisenberg were each charged with 21 felony counts of knowingly disposing hazardous waste at a site with no permit and one felony count of deposit of hazardous waste. They also each face one misdemeanor count of failure to maintain or operate a facility to minimize the possibility of a fire and public nuisance.

The complaint alleges that the defendants violated state environmental laws by not properly disposing hazardous waste. According to the complaint, soil samples taken from the high school, which is next to the Atlas facility, showed excessive concentrations of lead and zinc. Additional samples taken at Atlas found excessive concentrations of seven metals. Metal debris was also found at the high school.

"The charging of Atlas Metal for their environmental crimes is a step toward justice for the children of Jordan High School and the community of Watts. Children deserve a safe and healthy environment to learn and grow in, and we must hold companies accountable for their actions that put our children's health at risk," District Attorney George Gascon said. 

"Never has this been more important than in underserved communities who are often confronted by adverse industrial impacts that cause air, water and land pollution. Los Angeles Unified has been and will always maintain the firm resolve to support environmental policies that protects its students and staff from such health and safety risks," Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho stated. 

The criminal action from the District Attorney’s office is the latest in a series of investigations and filings by state, federal and school district officials. For years, students at the school have been protesting, even forming the Coalition for Healthy Families, trying to get attention to a situation that has been going on for years. 

The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), AQMD and a myriad of agencies have been investigating Atlas for years. The company has maintained that it is working to maintain the safety of the students and operates what it considers a critical service for residents in the area.

In 2020, LAUSD joined a federal lawsuit against the company, alleging hazardous substances, waste and fumes from the salvage yard endangered students and teachers. The soil in the school and surrounding community has registered very high levels of contaminants, but so far, efforts have focused on mitigation.

With criminal charges added to the mix, community activists and students are hoping Atlas decides to move.

Benjamin Gluck, Counsel for Atlas, released the following statement, "We were disappointed to see the charges. Atlas is actively working with the many public agencies involved and is actually moving close to a global resolution. The District Attorney declined to engage with us and chose instead to file charges.  We have not learned the details of those charges yet, but we will defend this case vigorously."