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Burning Unity : Grass-Roots Organizations Merge Efforts to Fight Trash-to-Energy Incineration Plants in Southland

Times Staff Writer

A dozen grass-roots groups that have sprouted in various Southern California communities to fight controversial trash-to-energy incineration plants are forming a coalition to throw more muscle into local protests.

Leaders believe that they can build an organization of 20,000 to 30,000 people who would contribute either money or technical and political expertise. These resources, they say, could be channelled to any neighborhood group that challenged one of the projects.

“If we don’t unite, somebody’s going to get one of these in their backyards, and we don’t want it in anybody’s back yard,” said Tom Walsh, a West Covina engineer who is one of the leaders of the coalition, California Alliance for the Defense of Residential Environments. “They should be in the desert, in a desolate area, not near homes.”

The movement comes at a time when 34 of the huge incinerators are planned in California, but only one--a rural test project--has been built. The disposal process is under scrutiny from state and regional air pollution officials, and Gov. George Deukmejian now has on his desk a bill to place strict new controls on them.

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The high-tech plants are designed to burn thousands of tons of household refuse each day, turning it into electric power. Their supporters say they are needed as an alternative to diminishing landfills, the prime resting place for the 36 million tons of garbage Californians throw away each year.

However, critics complain that too little is known about toxic chemicals likely to be released from the incinerators, particularly dioxins, a powerful carcinogen.

Dioxins--the poison compounds that tainted the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange--are blamed for widespread animal deaths and human maladies that followed a 1976 chemical explosion in Italy.

The effort to unify the protest groups came after members kept bumping into each other at hearings by the state Energy Commission and Air Resources Board and realized that their struggles--from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley to Wilmington to San Diego--were not isolated.

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“There was no passing of information from community to community,” said Walsh, who has long been active in the citizens movement to close the BKK Landfill in West Covina as a dump for hazardous wastes and has spent the last two years building an informal telephone network of grass-roots groups up and down the state.

Nationwide, about 200 communities are fighting battles over proposed incineration projects, according to the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, a Virginia-based organization for citizen groups founded by Lois Gibbs, a housewife who led homeowners in an emotional fight against the Love Canal chemical waste dump near Niagara Falls in 1978.

The groups share a sense of urgency.

“These incineration propositions move a whole lot faster, and in clumps, than any other disposal method we’ve ever seen,” said the clearinghouse’s program developer, Will Collette. “It goes from a situation where you have practically nothing on the docket to a dozen proposals or more.”

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Sanitation officials throughout California--running out of space for landfills and reluctant to propose opening new ones--have for years regarded trash-burning plants as the wave of the future.

A Lack of Awareness

Homeowners protesting the plants often complain that, in their enthusiasm, city officials and developers lock the plans into place before residents are made aware of them.

Opponents say this makes it more difficult to effectively argue against a plant because of the massive amount of technical data that must be mastered.

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Wil Baca, a Hacienda Heights resident who has campaigned against a proposed Irwindale trash-burning plant, said the coalition hopes to more quickly arm grass-roots groups for the fight with its hard-earned lessons.

These include, for example, how to anticipate the municipal regulatory process, how to break down an environmental impact report, how to distribute leaflets through a neighborhood and how to maintain residents’ commitment during the years of bureaucratic struggle it may take to fight an incinerator.

“So far, each group has had to learn for themselves how to get around those obstacles. In many cases we failed. The bureaucracy knows how to deal with public groups, which usually have a half-life of about six months,” Baca said.

A Touch of Irony

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Louis Armmand, a member of a South-Central Los Angeles citizens group fighting Los Angeles’ first proposed incinerator, said, “The idea is to not have to reinvent the wheel.”

That, ironically, was what Armmand’s organization had to do during much of the past year.

It formed last September, mounting a last-minute campaign to block the $170-million Los Angeles City Energy Recovery (LANCER) project at 41st and Alameda streets, a mile east of the Memorial Coliseum. The city had planned the project for years, hoping to break ground in 1987.

Sheila Cannon, a housewife who has lived near the proposed plant site for two decades, helped found the group after she grew suspicious when she attended a community meeting sponsored by the area’s city councilman, Gilbert Lindsay.

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“It was a meeting about the plant that had all pros and no cons,” Cannon said. “About how beautiful the plant was. For our area to be in the condition that it’s been in, and then for them to give us this ‘present'--that’s what made me know it couldn’t be right. All of a sudden we’re getting this big gift?”

Studying the Issues

Cannon and a handful of other residents began meeting each Saturday in a library, familiarizing themselves with dioxin and other air pollution issues associated with the plants.

“I had never been involved in a community organization,” Cannon said. “But each time I made a telephone call I was given another number, someone else to call.”

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By April, the South-Central residents were able to mount a successful protest. Enough of them showed up at a Los Angeles City Council committee meeting to temporarily block approval of LANCER’s conditional use permit.

In response to their complaints that possible health hazards had not been adequately studied, the council subsequently agreed to prepare a supplement to the project’s environmental impact report, concentrating on more recent health research.

That health study is expected to be completed by late this year, and LANCER opponents expect it to provide them with valuable ammunition to fight the project.

Looking for Leverage

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“A lot of us worked very hard, between jobs and children and other problems, and our efforts have paid off,” Cannon said.

Although most of the city’s political establishment has long been lined up solidly behind LANCER, the new study will give opponents “significant leverage,” Baca predicted. “The moment it comes out, all of our groups are going to get into it and tear it to pieces.”

The South-Central group’s fight may help citizens groups in other parts of the city gear up to battle plans by Los Angeles officials to build two more LANCER-type plants in the Westside and San Fernando Valley in the early 1990s.

“It’s not going to sneak up on the Westside and the Valley the way it snuck up on South-Central,” vowed Laura Lake, a UCLA environmental science professor who helped found Not Yet New York, a citizens group that formed last year while protesting high-rise development in the two communities.

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“We want people around the city to know that even if they don’t care about South-Central Los Angeles, they better wake up and smell the coffee.”

Source of Inspiration

Most of the citizen groups portray themselves as the spiritual heirs of Gibbs, whose well-publicized fight against Love Canal was sometimes credited with awakening the nation to its hazardous-waste problems.

Yet there is a difference. Gibbs’ followers on the East Coast often proudly identify themselves as “working-class” homeowners who feel shunned by the “academics” and “professionals” who dominate traditional environmental groups.

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In many of the Southern California’s grass-roots groups, these same professionals make up much of the membership, providing vital sophistication.

In South-Central, Armmand has used his legal expertise to help the group plan incorporation. In the San Gabriel Valley, Baca is one of many engineers whose technical background played a critical role.

Professional Advantage

“What you have in these groups is a lot of lay people whose professions help them figure out which people to talk to and how to do research,” said John Fasana, a program analyst from Duarte who used his background in energy-related issues to help start one of the citizens groups.

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Mark Abramowitz, project director for the statewide Coalition for Clean Air, welcomes the meshing of grass-roots groups. He shares their goals, but said his group has focused on tightening state regulations to block trash-to-energy plants and does not have the resources to enter many local battles.

“It’s wonderful,” he said, “because we sometimes seem like the lone wolf.”


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