Incinerator Foes Enlist New Allies : Vernon Protest March Gains Wider Support

Times Staff Writer

The proposed Vernon hazardous waste incinerator, an issue that has stoked the fires of protest in the predominantly Latino communities of southeast Los Angeles County for two years, is now fueling a wider spectrum of opposition.

With final approval possibly less than a month away, several hundred environmental activists from throughout the state, chanting “Ban the Burn,” joined scores of East Los Angeles residents Saturday in a protest march organized by the Greenpeace environmental group and led by U.S. Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Pasadena) and his daughter, Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles).

“The fumes will come right over our parrish,” said Pastor John Moretta of the Resurrection Catholic Church in East Los Angeles, where the march began.


After a march to the gates of the proposed incinerator, Roybal-Allard took the microphone and declared that the fight against the plant must be statewide: “We have got to unite people to fight with us because we have a governor who loves toxics.”

The crowd came right back: “Burn the Duke!” was the shout.

If built, the $29-million toxic waste burner, proposed by California Thermal Treatment Services of Garden Grove, would be the first commercial hazardous waste incinerator to be built in a metropolitan area.

“This will affect all of Los Angeles,” said Roybal-Allard, who has led the local effort to force California Thermal to prepare an environmental impact report before it begins construction on Bandini Boulevard near Downey Road.

Distrustful of state and company assurances that the incinerator would not spew toxic residues, local opponents since 1986 have collected more than 4,000 signatures, converged on several local public hearings and staged rallies to pressure the company into preparing an environmental impact report.

The opposition, however, was limited to residents living in low-income communities that ring Vernon, an industrial city about 3 1/2 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Other Supporters

But in recent weeks, others have thrown their support behind the local effort to force the company either to abandon its plan altogether or to produce an environmental impact report, a detailed series of studies to assess the impact of the project on the environment.


The Los Angeles City Council recently filed a lawsuit to force the impact report and the Los Angeles Unified School District board condemned hazardous waste projects near its schools.

And in the last few days, Hollywood celebrities, Greenpeace, union representatives and residents from throughout the state have joined to protest the incinerator. At the march, veterans from other battles over toxic waste facilities showed up in vans and buses; a contingent from Martinez in Northern California drove 350 miles to get there.

On Friday, MASH television star Mike Farrell joined other actors at the Los Angeles City Hall steps, saying: “The reason we are here is because we are concerned citizens. The principal function of government is to protect the welfare of its citizens.”

The government’s role in protecting the health of residents is central to the case of the opposition, which has complained that California Thermal has yet to prepare a detailed environmental impact report.

In September, the State Department of Health Services issued its final approval, an apparent reversal of an announcement it made in July that an environmental impact report would be required. Opponents claim the reversal came after intense political lobbying.

Company officials await only federal permits before they can apply for Vernon building permits. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval could come as early as the end of the month, EPA spokeswoman Virginia Donohue said. It so far has not ordered an impact report.


Plant opponents complain that an impact report should be a minimum standard before governmental agencies approve potentially harmful plants.

“We are not guinea pigs,” Roybal-Allard said at a rally and march Nov. 3 that attracted about 300 local residents. “This community is no longer going to sit by while we continue to be a dumping ground for unwanted projects.”

The incinerator would burn about 22,500 tons per year of solvents, pesticides, alcohols, oil and paint sludges, heavy metal residues and other hazardous wastes.

It is one of two hazardous waste facilities planned for Vernon. A toxic chemical treatment plant is being designed by Pennsylvania-based Chem-Clear Inc. The company is awaiting permits to begin construction in an abandoned metal plating factory at Slauson and Boyle avenues, 1 mile from the proposed incinerator.

Chemicals Neutralized

That plant would neutralize up to 60,000 gallons of cyanide, hexavalent chromium and other wastes daily for disposal into the county sewer system or local landfills. No impact report has been ordered for that project.

Roybal-Allard, state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Monterey Park) and other local politicians charge that some state officials believe that low-income areas such as Vernon are better suited as sites for potentially unacceptable projects because members of wealthier communities would be more successful in resisting those projects.


To bolster their case, they point to a report prepared by a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, Cerrell & Associates, four years ago for the California Waste Management Board.

The 65-page study concluded that the level of opposition to potentially dangerous projects could be predicted.

“Certain types of people are likely to participate in politics, either by virtue of their issue awareness or their financial resources or both,” said the report.

Officials of the Waste Management Board and the state Department of Health Services deny that any state agency has actually followed the consulting firm’s suggestion.

‘National Strategy’

But some local politicians, such as Bell City Councilman George Cole, disagree. “This is pretty much a national strategy, to put (unwanted projects) in poor, minority communities.”

But despite the claim to having little political power, the local resistance to unwanted projects has had some measure of success. Grass-roots organizations such as the Mothers of East Los Angeles and the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens have been successful so far in keeping an unwanted state prison from being built in their community. They were also involved with other groups from South-Central Los Angeles in halting construction of the so-called LANCER project, a waste-to-energy incinerator.


For their part, company officials stress that incinerator plans have undergone sufficient examination, and that an environmental impact report would be too expensive and time consuming.

Project director Donald Bright insists the plan has been found to be safe through various studies, including a state risk assessment survey and an air quality test by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Bright said it is ironic that the plant has met so much opposition. He says that his company will provide a vital service to the myriad waste-producing manufacturing companies located in the heavily industrialized area. Without the hazardous waste disposal plants planned for the area, he said, hazardous wastes could end up in the ground or being stored illegally in warehouses.

He also accuses politicians and activists of misleading residents by drowning out scientific fact with political rhetoric and emotion.

Bright said the incinerator would pose less of a health threat than the tens of thousands of automobiles that clog city streets and spew carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.

“All human activities involve some degree of risk,” Bright wrote recently in arguing that the cancer risk to residents living near the incinerator is an acceptable risk by state and federal agencies.


Bright also said that fears about a chemical spill or a plant fire are exaggerated. “It is unlikely that a disaster will occur.” If a spill were to occur, Bright argued, the chemicals would not pose a serious threat. “The CTTS facility . . . will handle ordinary hazardous waste materials, not unlike the hazardous waste materials produced or used every day in households.”

Next week, the state attorney general’ office, which is representing the state health department, will ask a judge to dismiss the suit filed last month by Los Angeles and a coalition of grass-roots organizations.

At the Nov. 29 hearing, deputy Atty. Gen. Paula L. Gibson said, the state will argue that the suit should be thrown out because Los Angeles city attorneys have failed to demonstrate a “significant effect upon the environment.”

Staff writer George Stein contributed to this article.