When Liberty Vegetable Oil Co. opened its plant nearly four decades ago in Santa Fe Springs, it was surrounded by acres of dairy farms.
But like much of Southern California, rapid growth soon transformed the rural setting into an urban landscape. Industrial buildings sprouted like weeds around Liberty Oil on Carmenita Road, and to the south in Cerritos, scores of homes replaced the feedlots and grain silos.
Now many of those homeowners in northeast Cerritos are upset with Liberty Oil, which manufactures two products at its facility: a feed supplement for livestock and a vegetable oil that is sold under other brand names.
When conditions are just right, residents complain, odors from the plant a mile away waft through their neighborhoods, particularly at night or during early morning hours. Homes in the area, which were built 10 to 15 years ago, sell for as much as $300,000 and some fear that property values could be hurt if the odors persist.
While some have learned to live with the odor, others, like Marina Callahan, say it is a nuisance that must end.
'A Putrid Smell'
"It is a putrid smell, something like burning animal fat. It's been here as long as I can remember," said Callahan, who has lived south of the plant on East Joaquin Lane for 15 years. "Even with all the windows closed it still gets into the house. . . . It's to the point that friends don't want to visit us anymore."
Since Jan. 1, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has received 44 complaints about odors from the plant, the bulk of those in late January, according to agency spokesman Ron Ketchum. As a result, the AQMD investigated and eventually issued Liberty Oil a public-nuisance citation that could result in fines up to $1,000. Ketchum also said the AQMD eventually may order the company to modify its plant to better control odor emissions, a step that could cost Liberty Oil $400,000 to $500,000 if a major redesign of the facility is necessary.
The problem, Ketchum said, is "fugitive" odors that escape into the atmosphere as oils are extracted from various grains and nuts. Most of the residual odors from the process are routed by air into a large chamber, known as a scrubber, and then chemically sanitized and deodorized before being released into the atmosphere. But Ketchum said some of the odors, none of which come from hazardous substances, are seeping through "cracks and holes" in the building.
"The company really needs to seal the building," said Ketchum, adding that no further action will be taken until Liberty Oil completes an internal review of the plant. "The entire building should be vented through the scrubbers"
Cited Twice, Fined
Ketchum said Liberty Oil, which was cited twice and fined a total of $2,000 in 1983 for minor air quality violations, has cooperated fully with the AQMD. Soon after the earlier citations, the company installed various air pollution control devices, including scrubbers, said Lee Hibma, Liberty's plant operations manager.
The company, Hibma said, is "baffled" by the flurry of complaints in late January. He said there were no major production schedule changes or equipment failures that might have caused an emissions problem. High winds or dense fog, he speculated, may have carried what emissions do escape toward Cerritos.
"We were here long before Cerritos was a city, back when the air always smelled bad because of the dairy farms," Hibma said. "Now we are cast as some kind of villain. . . . This kind of thing happens when homes are built near industry."
In Southern California, Ketchum said, this type of conflict is common because of the high cost of real estate. Developers trying to use every square foot possible are building closer and closer to industrial areas.
One resident, Sam Cammarano, said he believes the issue is not who has been around longer but finding a way for industry and residential neighborhoods to coexist.
"Nobody is asking that the plant be shut down," said Cammarano, who moved from Ohio to Cerritos last year and helped rally residents to complain about the odors. A petition with 100 signatures has been sent to both Cerritos and Santa Fe Springs officials as well as to the air pollution agency.
"We simply want the AQMD to enforce the law against Liberty," he said. "The odor is not going to kill us, but it's a shame when you can't leave your windows open or barbecue in the backyard because the smell turns your stomach."
Another resident, James Rogers, said the odors have worsened in recent months. "When I'm working in the yard and it gets bad," he said, "I just give up and go inside. I guess you might say we're a prisoner in our own homes."