A Southern California company that was the first in the state to obtain permits to build a commercial hazardous waste incinerator has abandoned the Los Angeles County project, charging Thursday that "political pressure" had unraveled the 6-year-old deal.
Security Environmental Systems, the Garden Grove company that was to build the incinerator in Vernon, decided to "throw in the towel" because "interminable" lawsuits threatened to drive costs beyond the $4 million already spent by the firm, the company's attorney said in an interview. Company officials said they would not try to locate another incinerator site in California.
The residents of primarily black South-Central Los Angeles and Latino East Los Angeles have fought the incinerator for years, fearing it would dump cancer-causing particles on their neighborhoods. Their opposition prompted passage of a state law requiring environmental reports on toxic waste incinerators.
"It was just one more chance to dump in a minority community and the company thought the minority community was not going to step to the plate," said Juanita Tate, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, a community activist group.
"But we kept putting the fuel to the fire, attending all the meetings and doing all the rallies."
Tate said fallout from the incinerator could have traveled as far as 15 miles from Vernon, a small industrial city 3 1/2 miles from downtown Los Angeles and bordering East Los Angeles and South-Central Los Angeles.
The project became embroiled in four lawsuits, but the final straw came this month. The California Supreme Court refused to overturn a lower court's decision that would have required the company to redesign the plant and do an environmental impact report and a new health risk assessment.
"The project opponents were opposed to the project lock, stock and barrel . . . ," said Lawrence J. Straw Jr., the company attorney. "Even if we had done an environmental impact report that said this thing was hunky-dory, peachy keen, they still would have done something to challenge the project in court."
Security Environmental and its wholly owned subsidiary, California Thermal Treatment Service, proposed the incinerator in 1985 and eventually obtained the necessary permits from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the California Department of Health Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Back in 1985, state legislators said incineration of hazardous waste was the preferred means of disposal in California," Straw said.
State health officials intended the Vernon incinerator to be "the vanguard of the entire state program for the disposal of hazardous waste," according to Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But in December, 1988, as Security Environmental was preparing to break ground in Vernon, the AQMD decided that the firm should do the environmental studies and the redesign.
"There was a lot of political pressure that was brought on the district, and I think that was the genesis of the change," Straw said.
Reynolds, who filed two lawsuits on behalf of residents near Vernon, agreed that the "concerns expressed by the community" partly influenced the district's action. He represented the residents as an attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a legal aid group. The incinerator also was opposed by the city of Los Angeles, a state legislator and two congressmen.
A district spokesman, however, said the permit conditions were toughened because new data indicated that health risks from plant emissions might be substantially greater than originally thought and because new, more stringent clean air regulations had been passed since the original permit was issued.
Security Environmental unsuccessfully challenged the district's decision up to the state Supreme Court. Straw said the firm's defeat will have ramifications for other businesses contemplating similar ventures in California.
"There is no finality in the permit processing system anymore, and if you are a banker or corporate officer and looking to make an investment in a project, you are not going to do something in a state where you don't know whether you'll be able to accomplish it or not," the attorney said.
Jonathan Grossman, executive vice president of Security Environmental, said California now ships most of its hazardous waste out of state.
"The bureaucracy bogs down anybody who has any innovative ideas," Grossman charged. "California doesn't want to wrestle with its own waste disposal problem."
But Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Keith Pritsker contended that the company could have avoided the court battles and costs if it had agreed to the environmental impact report from the start. Los Angeles became a party to the litigation in an effort to protect city residents who would have been downwind of the plant, he added.
Security Environmental, which treats and disposes of medical waste, had been cited repeatedly for violation of AQMD pollution rules at plants now closed in Garden Grove and Long Beach. An existing facility in Vernon treats medical wastes. The Vernon incinerator would have burned 22,500 tons a year of non-medical waste, including solvents and oils.
Pritsker said the company managed to get the permits without the environmental review because of skillful lobbying and political muscle. In 1987, another incinerator project, the Lancer trash-to-energy proposal--for ordinary garbage, not hazardous waste--also was abandoned in South-Central Los Angeles because of community and political opposition.
"There is no question we need a place to put our trash, to get rid of hazardous waste," Pritsker said. "But that does not mean that you can ignore other statutes that are there for the protection of the health and safety of the community."
Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) called the company's decision a "wonderful victory" and a "very happy surprise."
Moved by residents opposed to the incinerator, Roybal-Allard carried successful legislation requiring environmental impact reports for hazardous-waste incinerators.