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School Board Takes Stance Against Toxic-Waste Plant

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles school board members have joined the growing opposition to a proposed hazardous-waste treatment facility to be built in Vernon less than a block from Huntington Park High School.

The seven-member Los Angeles Unified School District board on Monday unanimously passed a resolution that opposes the toxic chemical-treatment plant unless an environmental impact report is ordered by health officials. An environmental impact report would examine the hazards that the plant might pose to the surrounding community.

The treatment plant, proposed by Pennsylvania-based Chem-Clear Inc., is one of three toxic-waste disposal facilities being considered for construction in the immediate area. It has received tentative approval from several city, state and federal agencies, none of whom have required an environmental impact study.

“At a minimum, there needs to be a full report done . . . so there is no question as to what type of danger this facility would represent,” said board member Leticia Quezada, who wrote the resolution with board member Julie Korenstein.

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“The school district needs to, and must protect the health and safety of the students in the school district,” Quezada said.

A copy of the board’s resolution was sent to Gov. George Deukmejian.

Petition Drive Urged

Last week, Korenstein attended an afternoon rally of about 300 Huntington Park High students and teachers where she read a draft of the resolution. Several speakers urged students to circulate petitions calling for the Chem-Clear project to be abandoned.

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The Vernon City Council, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the county Sanitation Districts have tentatively approved the proposed chemical treatment plant on a 2.7-acre site on Slauson Avenue, according to Chem-Clear spokesman Martin Smith.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health Services have issued draft permits for the facility as officials consider whether an impact statement is necessary.

Two other hazardous-waste disposal facilities are also being considered in the immediate area. State health officials recently ordered an environmental report for one on Bandini Boulevard. And AQMD officials have required a report on the other, which would be located just west of Vernon in Los Angeles.

The Chem-Clear plant would process up to 60,000 gallons per day of cyanide, hexavalent chromium and concentrated acids and alkalines, all used to some degree by many local industries. The waste chemicals would be trucked to the proposed facility, down busy streets that pass Huntington Park High.

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The chemicals then would be neutralized at the Chem-Clear plant and disposed of either in landfills or the county sewer system.

Community leaders, environmental activists and local politicians have been critical of the project for a variety of reasons. Some opponents fear that a fire or spill at the Chem-Clear plant would injure many of the 22,000 residents within a mile of the site or prompt a mass evacuation.

Still others charge that the largely Latino and mostly poor Southeast communities are being used as dumping grounds for projects that are unwanted in wealthier communities.

Local politicians who oppose the Chem-Clear project include Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and Bell Mayor George Mirabal.

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The United Teachers of Los Angeles and several smaller community action groups also support efforts to block the plant.

At a hearing held by the school board on Monday, Chem-Clear’s Smith said that an environmental impact report would delay the project at least a year--at a cost of millions of dollars to the company--and would not provide any “useful information to the non-scientific community around the facility.”

He said plant opponents are using emotional arguments rather than scientific fact to press their demands for an impact report.

“The result has been a campaign against the facility which has been based on hearsay and, to a large extent, wholly inaccurate information,” Smith said.

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He said that although some chemicals could be released into the atmosphere they would not normally harm residents. And the plant would have adequate systems to contain any chemical spills.

But under questioning by board member Jackie Goldberg, Smith acknowledged that a fire at the plant could produce toxic fumes that would endanger the health of residents near the facility.

He also agreed that toxic waste could spill if a transport truck was involved in an accident. Six public schools, two hospitals and several food-processing plants lie within a mile of the Chem-Clear site.

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Huntington Park High health teacher Rick Loya, referring to the horror movie, “Nightmare on Elm Street,” called the proposed toxic-waste facility a “nightmare on Slauson Avenue.”

“We know the board is concerned with overcrowded schools, but we feel Chem-Clear’s solution to overcrowding by potential ‘student-cide’ just isn’t the way to go,” Loya told the board. “We want to educate the kids, not bury them.”

Goldberg also said she was “astounded” by a list of safety violations that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources had brought against Chem-Clear’s Chester, Pa., plant.

The list of violations, which date from 1981 to 1987, include “not taking immediate action to . . . contain or dispose of a very large amount of . . . contaminated soil”; not labeling storage tanks for hazardous wastes and allowing “numerous chemical spills.”

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The list of violations was provided to the board by Roybal-Allard’s office.

Smith defended the company’s safety record, saying the violations cited by Pennsylvania officials were “taken out of context.” He said that overly stringent criteria were used to judge the safety features of the Chester plant.

Before the vote, board member Alan Gershman said that the list of safety violations prompted him to believe that the resolution “does not go far enough. I don’t think we can take a chance at the safety of our children.”

In a later interview, Quezada said she agreed with Gershman. She said she is confident that an environmental impact report would show conclusively that the Chem-Clear project would pose a threat to the community.

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Last year, Tweedy Elementary School in South Gate was closed because of a chemical spill from the nearby Purex Corp. facility. School officials also abandoned one proposed site for a high school in South Gate because an environmental impact report showed that a nearby foundry was too dangerous.

At Suva Elementary and Intermediate schools in Bell Gardens, part of the Montebello Unified School District, teachers feared that hexavalent chromium fumes escaping from a nearby chrome-plating factory had caused several miscarriages. However, Department of Health Services officials have concluded that the level of hexavalent chromium in the atmosphere around the school was not high enough to induce miscarriages of teachers working at the Suva schools.

Quezada also noted that Griffin Elementary School in Lincoln Heights was evacuated May 23 when a metal-plating company caught fire. Officials worried that barrels of cyanide and hydrosulfurous acid would cause a toxic cloud.

“This community is too familiar with toxic-waste issues,” Quezada said. “We just can’t have any more factories so close to our schools.”

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Last week’s rally was the second in a month at Huntington Park High. At the end of July, hundreds of students formed a human chain that stretched the 1,000 feet from the school’s football field to the corner of Boyle and Slauson avenues, where the Chem-Clear plant would be located.

Students have complained that they will inherit a polluted community if factories that handle toxic wastes continue to spring up in Vernon, a largely industrial city that has fewer than 125 residents.

Student Body President Roxanne Cabrerra of Huntington Park told the board Monday afternoon that “although the plant would be located in Vernon, air has no boundaries.”


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