On stifling summer days, slow sea breezes have long brought the smell of death to Boyle Heights.
Just upwind in the industrial yards on the Los Angeles River sits Darling International, a rambling complex of old buildings and gangways with the less than glamorous job of disposing of Southern California’s dead animals--from dairy cows and horses to the occasional zoo elephant.
The smell of decomposed flesh waiting to be “re-processed,” has for years generated complaints with the Southern California Air Quality Management District, which has been pushing the plant to clean up the stench.
But on May 13 during a particularly foul week, when the air quality agency issued a notice of violation, Darling’s reaction was swift and simple: It refused to take any more dairy cows.
This created a gruesome scene in San Bernardino County, where the nation’s densest concentration of dairy cows graze and were continuing to die. Health officials and farmers scrambled, while on pastoral roadsides around Chino and Ontario, almost 300 carcasses sat stiff in the sun waiting to be picked up, but with nowhere to go.
With a public health hazard looming, state agriculture officials last week stepped into the negotiations between the AQMD, Darling and various health and dairy groups, and the company resumed rendering cows.
Disaster was averted, and the flies vanished in the wind.
But questions still linger: How long will Boyle Heights residents have to endure a smell so foul it can induce vomiting? And how much leverage with regulatory agencies does Darling wield, being that there is nowhere else in the region to get rid of dead cows en masse?
Darling, a company that made $488 million last year with more than 40 plants across the nation, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Officials at the air quality agency said they had received at least 30 complaints recently about the smell. They said their sole concern is public health, and that dairy farmers must find another rendering plant if Darling refuses to take cows again.
“They need to think of an alternative and they need to think of it quickly,” said Joe Panasiti, a prosecutor for the agency. “We’re concerned with Boyle Heights and the East L.A. area because they’ve suffered a long time.”
Panasiti added that the company was cooperative and had decided to refuse the cows for financial reasons, not as a threat. According to him, the agency and Darling agreed as part of the negotiations that the plant would no longer accept cows that had been dead for more than 24 hours.
Steve Stiles, who runs the only company that transports the cows to the facility, agreed to the provision and said it allowed ample time to get an animal downtown.
But two days after Darling resumed rendering cows May 20, the smell a block away from the plant was nauseating.
Less than half a mile away in the Estrada Courts housing project, Juana Esther Martinez, sprays air fresheners in her apartment to mask the stink.
“I thought it was the smell of a dead corpse, like it was coming from the cemetery,” she said.
Residents said the smell comes and goes several times a week. It can cause discomfort as far away as Pico Rivera, and lingers in cars and clings to clothes.
By its very nature, rendering stinks. The carcasses are minced and boiled in a vat at more than 250 degrees. The fat is siphoned off and refined into tallow, which is used in thousands of products, including lipstick, soap, candles, pharmaceuticals, lubricants and candies. The heavy protein and bone matter is dried and used in bone meal and animal feed.
Eastside residents have complained about the cooking smell for more than half a century. Back when Los Angeles County boasted a booming dairy industry, there were dozens of slaughterhouses and rendering plants in the area, mostly in the city of Vernon.
Now there are four, including West Coast Rendering Co. in Vernon, which disposed of 1,354 tons of Los Angeles’s euthanized dogs and cats last year, and a slaughterhouse for Farmer John meats. But the AQMD says that Darling lets loose the foulest stench.
Resident groups in Boyle Heights began holding meetings with representatives from the AQMD, Darling and Councilman Richard Alatorre’s office last year.
The Texas-based company has had numerous brushes across the country with residents and government agencies and the public.
In 1996, Darling agreed to pay a $4-million fine in Minnesota--the largest pollution fine in that state’s history--after the company pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act. Charges included dumping animal waste into the Blue Earth River and falsifying reports to regulatory agencies. In Dallas and Cleveland, neighborhoods made headlines when they protested Darling’s reeking vapors damaging their quality of life. And in Los Angeles in 1996, the plant was fined more than $18,000 for serious safety violations, state labor officials said.
In the last two years, the AQMD has issued numerous notices of violation and required that the company install at least $500,000 in equipment to remove the smell in two pits where the cows are unloaded from trucks, Panasiti said. By this fall, Darling had enclosed one of the pits, he said.
Then, the company began breaking up the foundation to fix the other. With only one pit in operation, there was a glut of dead dogs, and the stench wafted over the neighborhoods, Panasiti said. That prompted the May 13 violation notice, which could have cost Darling $30,000 in penalties. But the company avoided the fine by agreeing to put an equal amount of money into equipment that would help remove the smells, Panasiti said.
Two days later, the company stopped taking cows. The carcass pileup began in Chino and lasted until May 19.
“If we went any more days with dead animals we would have had a huge health problem out here,” said San Bernardino County Supervisor Larry Walker. “We need to work with dairy operators to look for alternatives.”
AQMD officials said they hope the smell will be significantly reduced within 50 days when the second enclosure is scheduled to be completed.
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