Students Protest Proposed Waste Facility in Vernon : 500 Demonstrate Against Plans to Build Plant Near High School

Times Staff Writer

When 16-year-old Vincent Martinez heard over the weekend about a rally to protest a proposed hazardous-waste disposal plant a stone's throw from Huntington Park High School, the incoming senior class president performed his first official act.

He picked up the phone and began recruiting warm bodies.

As a result of the efforts of Martinez and others, about 500 Huntington Park students and teachers turned out Monday afternoon in a peaceful but boisterous demonstration against the proposed chemical treatment facility in Vernon. The high school is one block from the Vernon-Huntington Park border.

Many teen-agers on summer break came from their homes to join classmates who were attending summer session or participating in summer sports programs. Some donned surgical masks, rubber gloves or gas masks.

After listening to several speeches during a 3 p.m. rally on the high school steps, the students marched to the site of the proposed plant at Slauson and Boyle avenues.

Formed Human Chain

Chanting "Too Close to H.P." and carrying hand-lettered signs, the students joined hands on the sidewalk to form a human chain that stretched a block from the proposed plant site to the high school football field along Slauson. For about 20 minutes the protesters cheerfully waved their banners and shouted slogans at passing motorists, occasionally disrupting traffic. There were no arrests.

Richard Loya, a Huntington Park High health instructor who helped organize the event, said students are "really fired up" about blocking construction. "They see how dangerous this thing can be," he said.

The plant would treat up to 60,000 gallons per day of cyanide, hexavalent chromium and other hazardous chemicals for eventual disposal into either a local landfill or the county sewer system, according to the plant's operating manual.

The demonstration was the latest effort by community leaders to try to stop construction of hazardous-waste facilities in their neighborhoods.

State and Vernon officials have tentatively approved the treatment plant, to be built by Pennsylvania-based Chem-Clear Inc., which operates chemical treatment plants in Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago and Chester, Pa.

The Vernon plant is one of three hazardous-waste disposal facilities planned for the immediate area. Two proposed hazardous-waste incinerators would be built within two miles of the Chem-Clear facility.

California Thermal Treatment Services of Garden Grove is planning to build an incinerator at 3691 Bandini Blvd., Vernon, north of the Chem-Clear project. The $29-million incinerator would burn 10 types of hazardous wastes, including benzine, halogenated and oxygenated solvents, mixed oil and paint sludge.

A Superior Court judge last week turned down a 7-month-old request by a coalition of community leaders, environmental activists and local politicians to block construction of the incinerator, which has been the subject of heated debate the past year. Judge Kurt J. Lewin said the public is protected because state health services officials have ordered an environmental impact report that would address "any remaining danger to the public health. . . ."

William D. Ross, the attorney for the coalition, said he would appeal.

The other incinerator, located in Los Angeles near Vernon's western boundary, is being planned by Advanced Technology Incinerations Inc. The facility near Alba Street and Slauson Avenue would burn solvents, motor oil, paint and other common industrial wastes.

The company applied for operating permits last year, said Brian Farris, a spokesman for South Coast Air Quality Management District, which has ordered an environmental impact report. The facility, near the Pueblo Del Rio housing project, would be smaller than the California Thermal Treatment Services incinerator.

State and company officials contend that the plants would not harm residents or the environment. They say Vernon is an ideal location for waste-disposal facilities because of its small population (125 residents) and because several industrial operations that produce hazardous wastes are located in the city.

But many community leaders and residents of surrounding communities oppose the plants for a variety of political and environmental reasons. Some say that in an industrial accident, waste at the plants could contaminate ground water and injure people who live in the nearby, densely populated cities of Bell, Huntington Park and Maywood. Others charge that the plants would contribute to air pollution.

Many also charge that Vernon has been targeted as a "dumping ground" for unpopular and unsafe projects because the vast majority of residents living nearby are poor Latinos who have no political clout.

Two weeks ago, about 100 people attended a public hearing, sponsored by officials of the state Department of Health Services, to oppose the Chem-Clear plant and call for an environmental impact report. More than a dozen people, including Bell Mayor George Mirabal, spoke against the Chem-Clear plant. No one spoke in favor.

State and Vernon officials have given tentative approval of the plant without requiring an impact report.

John A. Hinton, head of the health services' facility permitting unit, said he would consider ordering an impact report on Chem-Clear after reading evidence submitted during the public-comment period, which ends Friday.

Chem-Clear official Martin Smith, who would become general manager of the treatment plant, said he was surprised by the student demonstration and was impressed by the turnout.

Smith, who met some of the students at the plant's chain-link fence, promised to meet with Huntington Park High Principal Antonio Garcia today or Friday to discuss the issue.

Proximity to School

"I think the heart of the matter is still that we need to take into consideration that there are concerns about the plant's proximity to the school," Smith said. "I want to assure everybody that it is designed not to pose a problem."

Students, echoing arguments raised during the public hearing earlier in the month, charged that their community is being left out of the decision-making process that is bringing the hazardous-waste facilities to the area.

"It's not fair that they didn't even ask us," said Oscar Ornelas, 18, attending summer classes. He said he heard about Chem-Clear's plan over the weekend, as did many other students. "They just came and decided to put it here."

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