To Waste Plant Foes, It's David-and-Goliath Victory : Environment: Firm says recession made it drop proposal, but opponents say, 'We chased them out.'


The victors gathered last week in front of an abandoned building that was to be turned into a modern plant to treat hazardous waste within a stone's throw of Huntington Park High School.

The United Neighborhoods Organization, a teacher who organized student protests, the Mothers of East Los Angeles and other opponents carried signs proclaiming, "Otra Victoria Del Pueblo Unido" (Another Victory for a United Community).

The day before, Chem-Clear Inc., a subsidiary of Union Pacific Corp., dropped its plan to build a plant that would treat as much as 140,000 gallons of industrial waste each day on the corner of Slauson and Boyle avenues in Vernon. The site is on Huntington Park's northern border within 1,000 feet of the high school and dozens of homes.

A Chem-Clear spokesman said his firm backed out because the project was no longer economically viable; the recession had hit the local industry that such a plant would serve.

But for the 40 or so people gathered at last Thursday's rally, it was a classic David-and-Goliath story, the people vanquishing the corporate giant.

"We chased them out," said Father Rody Gorman, pastor of St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church in Huntington Park and a UNO leader. "This is no place to build a toxic waste facility."

Chem-Clear first proposed the treatment plant in 1986. It had some preliminary plans drawn up and went about securing the appropriate permits.

Industrial wastes, including hexavalent chromium, acids and other hazardous chemicals from Los Angeles-area factories, would be hauled to the facility by tanker trucks on freeways and city streets.

Water would be separated from the materials and discharged into sewers. The remaining sludge containing hazardous metals and other materials would be hauled off by rail or truck to a Utah landfill.

Chem-Clear officials said the plant would benefit the public. It would enable area factories to properly dispose of their waste, rather than store it in leaky barrels or dumping the waste illegally.

But public opposition began to snowball shortly after state and federal officials held public hearings on the proposal in July, 1988. There could be a spill, or a fire could send toxic clouds over residential neighborhoods, opponents said. Any benefit would be outweighed by the danger.

State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) quickly announced their opposition to the plant. They said it was another example of an attempt to place a potentially hazardous facility in a low-income, minority community. Huntington Park is more than 90% Latino.

Ric Loya, a health teacher at Huntington Park High School, began organizing his students. Two weeks after the hearings, about 500 Huntington Park students and teachers marched in protest.

Loya also was instrumental in persuading the Los Angeles school board to pass a resolution opposing Chem-Clear's proposal.

"You wonder how you can pull it off," Loya recalled last week.

UNO, which made its name fighting exorbitant auto insurance rates in East Los Angeles, entered the fray in September, 1990.

"At that time there was a feeling among the people that they can't win," Gorman said.

He and UNO lobbied local city officials to oppose the proposed plant. The group set up community meetings with Chem-Clear officials to enable residents to voice their opposition.

The campaign intensified after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Toxic Substance Control last February announced their intention to issue permits for the facility.

State and federal officials found that the plant would have plenty of safeguards against accidents. Air emissions would pose little risk, they said.

But opponents countered that the finding was based on limited environmental studies. Sen. Torres and others appealed the decision, but state and federal officials eventually rejected those appeals.

But the opponents had caught the attention of officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which also regulates such plants.

Initially, the AQMD had issued permits to Chem-Clear. Then last September, the agency notified Chem-Clear that it would require further environmental studies before it could approve the plant.

Then on Oct. 11, Assemblywoman Roybal-Allard and the Mothers of East Los Angeles, a community-based group, filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the EPA's decision to allow a hazardous waste treatment plant to be built on the site.

Two weeks later, UNO issued an ultimatum to Chem-Clear: abandon its proposal by Nov. 4 or face the consequences. Gorman never said what those consequences were, only that, "We had things up our sleeves." Last Tuesday, UNO held a candlelight march to the site of the proposed plant.

For several months, Chem-Clear had been meeting with UNO officials and Sen. Torres about the possibility of finding an alternate site in Vernon, further from the high school and residences in Huntington Park.

But last Wednesday, Chem-Clear officials abruptly announced that the firm would drop its plan altogether, still maintaining that the plant would have been safe.

"It's not related to the public pressure," said Ken Loest, the firm's director of environmental services. "It's related to the increasingly uncertain market conditions in . . . the hazardous waste treatment business."

Sen. Torres, who sent a representative to last Thursday's victory rally, praised Chem-Clear officials for dropping their proposal.

"My goal is to encourage industries to come into (minority) communities because we need jobs," Torres said in a telephone interview from his Sacramento office. "But industries that are going to be environmentally safe and sound."

Although the battle with Chem-Clear is over, the community leaders said they would keep their guard up against similar proposals.

"We're not just here today, we're here for the long haul," Father Gorman said.

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