Alice Pleasant knew exactly what she wanted when she retired to a remote Los Angeles County area near Gorman last year--a warm climate for her arthritis and lots of clean air.
From her new home in the sparsely populated community of Holiday Valley, Pleasant could see an old cement manufacturing plant a few miles away just across the Kern County border. But the former telephone company worker didn't give it much thought until her health began to deteriorate.
"At times, I could hardly get out of my chair," said the 65-year-old widow, who complained of frequent fatigue. With it came nausea, headaches, almost daily nosebleeds, a burning sensation in her eyes and a dry mouth.
Pleasant wasn't alone. Dozens of other residents nearby and in surrounding communities--some up to 10 miles away--were reporting similar maladies. And their attention turned to the cement plant--the first in the state to use a new technology in which hazardous waste is burned as fuel in the cement-making process.
Many residents are blaming emissions from the cement plant for their woes and are demanding that the plant stop burning hazardous wastes.
"It's just a disaster. The whole thing is a disaster," said Stormy Williams, who has been active in Desert Citizens Against Pollution, a local environmental group formed to fight the plant. "We want testing done. We want everything tested," she said.
Officials of National Cement Co. of California, which owns the Los Robles Cement Plant about nine miles northeast of Gorman, insist it is safe, saying that none of its 100 employees have suffered any ill effects. "We have an absolute degree of confidence," said Don Unmacht, National Cement's president. "All of our testing to date indicated our plant does not pose a health problem to these residents."
The state Department of Health Services recently began an investigation into the safety of the facility. And the South Coast Air Quality Management District soon will begin testing air in adjoining Los Angeles County communities where most of the health complaints have originated.
So far, state health officials can't explain why people who live four to 10 miles from the plant are becoming ill. Typically, health investigators say, toxic fumes do not have a significant short-term effect at such distances.
Meanwhile, the future of the new waste-burning technology hangs in the balance. Supporters endorse it as a means of safely eliminating hazardous substances by burning them at extremely high temperatures--double those of typical incinerators.
"Quite frankly, the whole concept is on the line," said Clifton Calderwood, manager of compliance for the Kern County Air Pollution Control District. "If it fails here, it's probably going to fail elsewhere too," he said.
The Los Robles Cement Plant has been using the technology since 1982, state officials said. The process has become more attractive in recent years as state and federal policies have begun to ban hazardous wastes from landfill disposal.
For most of those years, the huge plant attracted little attention from residents or government regulators. But that changed last year when the facility won permission to burn larger quantities of hazardous wastes, and residents began to complain of health problems.
Until last fall, the plant generated 25% of the heat needed for its cement kiln from hazardous wastes. Then National Cement won permission from the state and Kern County to increase that to 40%, an amount equal to 1,200 gallons an hour or up to 10.5 million gallons of hazardous waste a year.
The cement plant burns mainly liquid solvents and lubricants. In the process it emits dioxins, furans and various heavy metals--all believed to cause cancer in humans--but at levels that company officials contend are not harmful.
Residents' complaints ultimately led the Kern County Air Pollution Control District earlier this month to levy a $100,000 fine against the plant for exceeding the 40% limit on 66 days. National Cement agreed to pay that amount in a settlement but admitted no guilt.
Environmentalists decried the settlement as being too lenient, since the company could have been liable for $1.65 million. But they were more troubled by tests in December and January that showed the plant emitted carcinogenic substances such as dioxins, furans and various heavy metals at levels higher than the limits specified in the plant's permit.
The company responded by getting Kern County officials to redraft its permit to delete those limits, Kern County Air Pollution Control District officials said.
Company officials insist that the facility is safe and has not polluted the area, pointing out that none of its employees have suffered any ill effects.
But residents have kept up their campaign against the plant. As a result, the state health department will begin taking soil samples at the plant to test for contamination and probably will oversee sampling of the air as well.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District plans to begin sampling the air in the Los Angeles County communities near the plant, particularly Holiday Valley and Three Points, looking for traces of toxic emissions.
Residents had been demanding such a testing program but had gotten no response from air quality officials in Kern County. Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents most of the nearby residents, persuaded the AQMD to step in.