Invitation to a Toxic Maelstrom : Incinerator Proposal Cries Out for Environmental Controls With Muscle

<i> Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) represents parts of East and Southeast Los Angeles</i>

A recent decision by the state Department of Health Services not to require an environmental-impact report for a planned toxic waste incinerator in Vernon is wrong--and worse, it could adversely affect the health of thousands of residents in heavily populated Southeast Los Angeles.

First, some background on the controversy:

Earlier this year a public hearing on the proposed toxics incinerator was held in South Gate by the state Department of Health Services and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. At that meeting, there was strong community opposition to construction of the incinerator without first requiring the company planning to build it, California Thermal Treatment Services of Garden Grove, to pay for a comprehensive environmental-impact report. A full environmental-impact report, among other things, identifies significant effects on the environment and indicates ways in which those effects can be mitigated or avoided.

In July, yielding to furious opposition from Eastside residents and community organizations, the Department of Health Services announced that it would require an environmental-impact report before deciding whether to approve the proposed incinerator plant.


Last month the state reversed itself, claiming that no new information had been forwarded to persuade health authorities to pursue a full environmental study.

The about-face is a stinging slap in the face to local residents, many of whom are poor Latinos who lacked political representation in the past.

It is crucial that a detailed environmental-impact report be performed on the planned toxic waste incinerator so that, at the very least, the public knows all of the potential risks. Eastside community groups are alarmed that their neighborhoods are especially vulnerable to toxic and chemical spills because their homes, schools and businesses are often near plants that handle dangerous chemicals. Considering that there are numerous commercial food production facilities in the area, the Southern California community at large has a right to know how the fumes from the plant might affect the packaging of meat that we all may eat.

Moreover, the proposed plant in Vernon is utilizing an untested technology: It would be the first commercial toxic incinerator in the state. Once built, the $29-million incinerator would burn more than 22,000 tons of hazardous sludge each year at the white-hot temperature of 1,800 degrees.


Finally, common logic dictates the absurdity of taking a chance on a crematory for toxic materials without first performing a full environmental analysis. Why place thousands of individuals in potential health danger unnecessarily?

An example of what could go drastically wrong happened in early September in the Montebello area. A half-mile-long cloud of toxic gas forced the evacuation of about 27,000 people from their homes. The toxic cloud contained a chlorine used in producing chlorine tablets for swimming pools. According to press reports, the plant responsible for the toxic fallout had no contingency plan in case of emergencies. Luckily, no serious injuries were reported. But will the community be so fortunate the next time there is a toxic spill?

Los Angeles County’s lack of tough regulations for industries using toxic substances points to a potential powder keg that could explode into an unprecedented disaster at any time. While there are thousands of unidentified companies in Los Angeles using toxic materials with little or no county regulation, local authorities insist that they are vastly understaffed for enforcement and inspection programs. According to news reports, there are 40 county Health Department inspectors who are supposed to visit the 13,000 known firms that generate hazardous waste every two years. And the county Fire Department has only three hazardous-materials units.

County officials are not adequately prepared for a major toxic spill. The reaction to the Montebello spill is an example of bad coordination that could have had disastrous consequences. The county needs to formulate a unified contingency plan to deal with hazardous-waste emergencies in order to better enforce existing toxics laws.

Stringent toxic laws must be enacted on both the state and local levels. In Sacramento, the Legislature must support strict guidelines on new toxic waste plants next year. At present, there is no state law that requires an environmental-impact report for planned toxic facilities. Such reports are provided only when the responsible government agency believes that the situation warrants them. This discretionary practice can lead to bureaucratic passivity.

The governor recently vetoed my legislative proposal that would have amended the existing state law to require toxic waste firms to conduct exacting environmental reports. I plan to reintroduce legislation that would establish clear-cut and specific guidelines spelling out when an environmental study is required. It would mandate a thorough environmental analysis on all new commercial incinerators in the state.

The poor decision by state health authorities in failing to require an environmental-impact report for the proposed Vernon toxics plant serves the interests of the very few. Without preventive steps, we’re setting ourselves up for a potential toxic maelstrom.