Far-Off Polluters Hit Close to Home for Teen Activists

Times Staff Writer

A community campaign against toxic waste ran the risk of being a waste of time for a group of Woodland Hills high school students.

Their campus is in one of the cleanest parts of Los Angeles, miles away from pollution-causing industry. And teen-agers do not usually carry much clout with adults when it comes to political issues.

But 30 Taft High School seniors, who fanned out across the West Valley with petitions calling for tougher punishment of polluters, found there was plenty of support for their cause among area residents.

On Thursday the students delivered the petitions with more than 5,000 signatures to the Woodland Hills office of state Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara).

People Want Information

"One woman in Topanga Plaza who signed the petition spent 30 minutes talking with me about the toxic waste danger," Paul Levine, 18, said. "Others gave us their addresses and asked us to send them more information. People wanted us to keep them informed about what was being done."

The petitions call for new laws mandating a "minimum of two years, up to a maximum of life imprisonment" for persons convicted of illegally dumping toxic industrial wastes, a crime that traditionally has been penalized with fines.

The petitions also urge state programs for the recycling of such wastes and the shutdown and rehabilitation of hazardous-waste dump sites.

Levine said most of the adults who signed were "pretty pessimistic" about the long-term effects of toxic wastes on their families. Many, he said, were dismayed to learn that up to 89 truckloads of such wastes now travel through the San Fernando Valley each day, since the closure last fall of a West Covina hazardous-material landfill.

Los Angeles city officials have estimated that 46 truckloads of dangerous wastes move daily along the Ventura Freeway to a Santa Maria dump. Another 43 loads are dispatched on Interstate 5 to a Kings County landfill. Officials say that uncounted other loads are disposed alongside roadways or in storm drains by so-called "midnight dumpers."

Door-to-Door Canvassing

Taft High student Bruce Zucker, 17, said students stationed themselves in front of supermarkets and department stores and went door to door in their own neighborhoods over the last month.

He said the student campaign was mapped out last fall in a government class. The class ended last month, but the teen-agers kept the project going on their own.

Zucker said the students were encouraged by a Jan. 10 advertisement in The Times that was placed by a Los Angeles manufacturing firm whose president and vice president were jailed after pleading no contest to charges that they illegally dumped chemicals. The court-ordered ad warned other companies of the consequences of such violations.

As part of their campaign wrap-up Thursday, the students presented Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner with a plaque thanking him for prosecuting polluters.

Jailing a First

About 200 other government and science students in the school auditorium applauded as Reiner said the jailing of the American Caster Co. executives was the first such punishment in the state for industrial polluters.

"Your group is an indication there is a change of public awareness of the problem," Reiner told them.

Government teacher Dick Hubbard said he was pleased by the students' project because many teen-agers still have post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War disillusionment with politics.

"But these kids saw that what happens on the other side of town will eventually affect what happens here," Hubbard said.

Earlier Project Made Impact

Last semester's government students also had an impact on the Taft campus. They built several unusual circular benches and installed them in a corner of the school grounds in hopes of improving communication among students.

"The kids decided that long, straight benches are insane. They don't lend themselves to more than two people sitting down to talk," Hubbard said.

As with the petitions, students planned the benches themselves and paid for the materials out of their own pockets, Hubbard said.

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