When she retired last year to the sparsely populated community of Holiday Valley in northwestern Los Angeles County, Alice Pleasant knew exactly what she wanted--a warm climate for her arthritis and lots of clean air.
From her new home, Pleasant could see the cement plant that sits a few miles away across the Kern County line. But the former telephone company worker never gave the factory much thought until her health began to slide.
“At times, I could hardly get out of my chair,” said the 65-year-old widow, complaining of frequent fatigue.
With the fatigue came nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, a burning sensation in her eyes and a dry mouth.
Pleasant was not alone. Dozens of other area residents reported similar problems. And their attention turned to the 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 blame emissions from the cement plant for their health woes and are demanding that the burning of hazardous wastes there be stopped.
“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.”
Officials of National Cement Co. of California, which owns the Los Robles Cement plant, about nine miles northeast of Gorman, insist that it is safe, pointing out that it has about 100 employees and none 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. In addition, the South Coast Air Quality Management District will soon begin testing air in adjoining Los Angeles County communities where most of the health complaints have originated.
So far, state health officials are at a loss to explain why people who live 4 to 10 miles from the site are becoming ill.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Resident 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.
The state health department will soon begin taking soil samples at the plant to test for contamination and probably will oversee sampling of the air as well.