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Inspection of underpass under Interstate 10 failed months before fire

Stacks of wooden pallets stored with combustible liquids under Interstate 10 had troubled Caltrans and state firefighters for at least three years before the materials caught fire this month and caused the closure of one of the Los Angeles’ busiest highways for over a year. week, newly released Caltrans documents show.

The fire is now being investigated as arson. He also highlighted Caltrans’ little-known $34.6 million leasing program, which allows private companies to lease space under and next to highways. Standing atop the Santa Monica Freeway early Sunday morning, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he expects to have an initial assessment of the statewide program, which has more than 600 leases, on Wednesday.

The fire prompted federal officials to remind state transportation departments of federal regulations that limit the storage of flammable materials under highway bridges.

“This event in California once again raises serious concerns about the storage of materials, including flammable, explosive or hazardous materials, under bridges and other elevated structures,” Federal Highway Administration officials wrote in a statement last week. memo to state transportation departments. They cited warnings from the National Transportation Safety Board to be vigilant about combustible materials under bridges after a similar fire in 2017 closed a stretch of I-85 in Atlanta.

Caltrans has leased the underpass where the fire broke out from Apex Development and its landlord Ahmad Anthony Nowaid since 2008, but recently attempted to evict him for non-payment of rent.

Nowaid sublet the parcel to nearly a dozen companies that operated in the 48,000-square-foot area, charging them a total of about three times what he was paying, according to court documents and the tenants. Most of the tenants were immigrants who ran blue-collar shops, including a pallet distributor, a mechanic shop, and a recycler.

Several reported seeing inspectors and attempting to respond to their requests.

“What we do is try to make our workplace as safe as possible,” said Raul Castro, who buys cars for scrap. “We try to make it clean, no flammables, no nothing.”

Caltrans said it has inspected the underpass at Lawrence and East 14th streets six times since the start of 2020, with the most recent inspection taking place on October 5. During these visits, inspectors noted several fire hazards, including wooden pallets and the homeless encampments that surrounded the location. plot.

In September 2021, Caltrans officials sent a letter to Nowaid informing him of “numerous violations regarding the storage of hazardous materials,” according to the documents. Inspector Daryl Myatt said a foreman, Matthew Herrera, promised the safety hazards would be eliminated by next month.

They never were.

Apex failed a surprise inspection conducted by Caltrans and the State Fire Marshal’s Office on August 16, 2022.

“This lease contains numerous violations of the terms of the lease, including rented dogs, multiple high hair issues, solvents, oils, fuels and other things expressly prohibited by the lease,” Myatt wrote in a newspaper Caltrans Inspection Authority.

“This is a dirty, unmaintained lease,” he wrote two days later, during a scheduled inspection of the stormwater site.

“Evict the tenant and start again,” he wrote in the notes.

Caltrans issued a three-day eviction notice a year later on Aug. 24, 2023, then filed suit against Nowaid, his company and his subtenants on Sept. 20 for nonpayment of rent. Caltrans claims Nowaid owes $78,000 in back rent.

The property was one of five properties Caltrans was trying to evict Apex and another company Nowaid from, including land along the 5 Freeway in Sun Valley and another a block from the fire. In total, Nowaid owed Caltrans about $620,000 in unpaid rent as of September, the agency said in a court filing.

The case is expected to be heard early next year.

Israel Quintero, who rents a site not far from the fire, arrived at work Monday to the hum of traffic. The highway was opened Sunday evening. He said Caltrans sent workers to the site earlier in the day to warn tenants they could be evicted. He said he was already looking for a place to stay.

“It was a terrible experience, full of stress,” said Quintero, who runs an auto body shop under the highway. “My family, my children depend on this work.”

The store itself probably looks like the one that burned down. When Times reporters arrived Friday at the cavernous terrain beneath the Quintero factories, pallets could be seen stacked. The work booths were separated by massive wooden walls. There were rows of cars that were just shells.

Quintero said he’s not hiding anything. When he rented the booth, he told Nowaid exactly what he would do.

“We’re not doing this illegally,” Quintero said.

Los Angeles Times

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