"En Espanol, en Espanol." The chant spread quickly over the crowd of about 500 people--most of them Latino--who had come to tell state and federal officials why they objected to placing a proposed hazardous waste incinerator in nearby Vernon.
When officials convened the public hearing last month, inside a packed Commerce City Council chamber, they did so without a Spanish language interpreter. And some in the crowd took it as a slap in the face.
"Public forums in our community need . . . interpretation," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, an opponent of the incinerator project. "Most of the community surrounding is Spanish-speaking. And if in fact they (state and federal officials) want a full hearing, there has to be full understanding within the community."
The Dec. 1 meeting came to a halt after about 45 minutes, when members of the overflow audience refused to yield to a fire marshal's order that the jammed aisles and exits be cleared.
When officials continue the hearing on Monday in the 1,000-seat South Gate Auditorium, an interpreter is scheduled to be present, according to Dave Borzelleri, spokesman for the state Department of Health Services.
"Clearly, if there is a demonstrated need, we're going to address that segment of the population," Borzelleri said. "We have no problem with that."
But Martha Molina, a field representative for Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-56th District), said the lack of an interpreter at last month's meeting is an example of why residents believe they have been given inadequate information about the hazardous waste incinerator that opponents contend could pose a threat to public health.
"The surrounding community right around Vernon was not even considered as far as providing information," she said. "It's been made very clear . . . that since this is one of the lowest voter registration districts in the state, there is not a very loud voice here. And so they can put anything they want in the area, and not hear from us."
At the center of the controversy is the estimated $29-million incinerator, designed to burn more than 20,000 tons of toxic sludges and other hazardous waste each year.
Second in State
The facility would become the second exclusively commercial hazardous waste incinerator in the state and the first in a populated urban area. The company that wants to build the project--California Thermal Treatment Services--could start construction once it obtains required permits from the state Department of Health Services and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Opponents say a full environmental impact report should be performed before the permits are issued. But the South Coast Air Quality Management District has already issued more than 20 permits for components of the facility, and officials say an impact report is unnecessary.
Vernon, an industrial city with more than 1,000 businesses, is the largest producer of hazardous waste in the Southeast area, and could provide up to 2,800 tons of the waste the facility would treat during a year of operations.
But Councilwoman Molina believes that the site has as much to do with the fact that Vernon, with fewer than 100 residents, is surrounded by predominantly Latino communities.
'Sick and Tired'
"That (area) is the only place that they would venture to put (sensitive projects) in," the councilwoman said when interviewed at last month's hearing. "If you look at other communities, they aren't placing them there. This is the first one in the state of California . . . and where do they choose to put it? On the Eastside again. We're sick and tired of that kind of thing, and that's why we came here to oppose it."
Said Lucy Ramos, a member of Mothers of East Los Angeles, a community group opposing the incinerator: "We said we weren't going to be guinea pigs for anybody. It seems like they want to bring everything to this area."
Although opponents argue that residents have been unable to get adequate information about the incinerator project, officials say they have circulated more detail than the law requires.
Permit applications and a health-risk assessment have been available for review in English at a number of public libraries, as well as at Department of Health Services and EPA offices.
Also, project consultant Bright & Associates has mailed seven newsletters over the past two years to keep business people and organizations up to date on the progress of the incinerator. Of the 700 copies sent each time, about 70 were in Spanish, said spokesman Robert Menees.
"We've at least made an effort to reach the Spanish-speaking community. . . . We tried to concentrate on organizations and individuals who we felt would get the word out to people in the area," Menees said.
Checked the Names
Aides for Roybal-Allard say they checked the names on the consultant's mailing list and found that only 10% were local residents or community organizations.
But Menees said 150 to 200 of the names on the list were people in the area.
"The mailing list and the newsletter are not something we are required to do or responsible for doing," Menees said. "This is something that we took upon ourselves."
Nevertheless, "they should be required to do more," Roybal-Allard aide Martha Molina said. The week before last month's hearing, the assemblywoman mailed letters to 32,000 residents within a five-mile radius of the proposed site, stating that she was "very concerned that the public has not been adequately informed or involved . . ." and that "our community has been victimized by many unwanted and hazardous projects that were placed here without community participation."
Letters in English and Spanish were sent to households with Spanish-surnamed residents, and every letter contained a fact sheet describing the incinerator.
Last week, Roybal-Allard sent out another 32,000 mailers to voters in her district announcing Monday's hearing and restating her concerns.