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Complaints recycled as much as waste at Sun Valley facility

Complaints about the massive open-air recycling facility in Sun Valley flow in each month in minute, sometimes stomach-turning detail.

Rats have skittered off the property of Community Recycling & Resource Recovery and into a nearby business, according to calls logged by the city. Churning dust is said to be “making everyone’s eyes burn,” making breathing difficult and causing bloody noses among workers at a neighborhood paving firm.

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Gulls scavenging from piles of food waste have scattered bits of garbage from the sky. And then there is the stench, variously described in the logs as “a dead animal smell,” a “rotten egg odor” and “putrid.”

U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City), who until recently represented the area on the Los Angeles City Council, said the facility calls to mind “the cave man days.”

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The problem was supposed to have been fixed long ago. But neighbors have been left fuming, saying that politics and bureaucracy have allowed the facility to continue to take in nearly three times the amount of waste permitted and process it in smelly, open-air piles.

“Trash, dust, green waste, birds and liquids are very much in the public right of way, in the air and flowing into our storm drains,” said David DePinto, president of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn. in a neighborhood not far from the facility. “It’s hard to believe such a site is allowed to operate in the United States … in the year 2013.”

Over the last decade, the city’s oversight has been strikingly inconsistent.

In 2004, Los Angeles sued Community Recycling, alleging numerous violations and vowing to “creatively use every tool available ... to protect our communities and preserve our environment.” In 2004 and 2006, the city issued two cease-and-desist orders against the company to stop the processing of food scraps, yard waste and construction debris until it could get the necessary permits.

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But in the end, the city worked out an interim operating agreement that would last until an environmental review could be done allowing the operations to be expanded and largely enclosed.

That report was completed in 2012 — five years behind schedule. The city and the company each blame the other for the delays.

Later this month, officials will hold the first in a series of hearings on the plan to expand the operation to process up to 6,700 tons of food scraps, yard clippings and other waste — making it among the five largest waste processing facilities in the state, according to records. The operation is now taking in up to 4,600 tons a day under its agreement with the city. Given the history of the project, many neighbors strongly oppose the expansion plan.

“We’re 100% for recycling, just not on the backs of Sun Valley,” said Mike O’Gara, a member of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council.

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City officials say they will fight to protect residents’ quality of life. Councilman Paul Krekorian, who represents neighborhoods near the facility, said he intends to demand that the company enclose more of its operations than planned, and that it convert its trucks from diesel to compressed natural gas.

But the bottom line is that the city relies on the transfer station.

The facility takes in more than 10% of the yard clippings picked up by city garbage trucks and nearly 40% of the food from a restaurant composting program. A crackdown could imperil a recycling system that elected officials tout as essential to making Los Angeles an environmental leader. Failing to meet recycling targets could also trigger state fines.

The city also has benefited from Community Recycling’s largesse. In 2008, the company pledged to contribute $15 million worth of trees to the city’s Million Trees initiative, one of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s signature environmental projects. City officials and representatives from the company said there was no connection between the gift and officials’ decision to stay its cease-and-desist order the previous year.

In May, after contributing about $3.5 million in trees and labor, the company stopped delivering seedlings. It did not give a reason.

The company’s attorney, Fred Gaines, said it has been waiting years for officials to process permit applications and environmental reviews. “It has been frustrating,” Gaines said. “We have proposed to build a very large enclosure, which will result in an improved situation, and it’s taken a very long time.”

He said that when Community Recycling, which has no adjoining residential neighbors, started processing food scraps, construction debris and yard waste in the 1990s, permits were not yet required for that material. He also noted that after the city’s 2004 lawsuit, the company made a number of improvements, including landscaping, better drainage and new procedures to reduce dust. Air pollution violations have fallen since then, records show.

But city officials said the company has delayed the process and been particularly slow to provide needed environmental reports. “They have continued to operate on the cheap while being able to postpone millions of dollars in expenditures,” Cardenas said.

Meanwhile, the city’s oversight has taken on a bizarre quality: Regulators, who visit at least every two weeks, have issued more than 70 “violations” over the last two years — mostly for not complying with permits. The violations never result in any fines or disciplinary action, in part because the city has agreed not to enforce permit violations.

In May, an inspector noted that he had seen a rat that “appeared to be the size of a small Chihuahua” carrying a “large piece of lettuce in its mouth.” In June, inspection notes described how workers at a nearby business were upset that birds were dropping chicken bones into roof vents. The inspector wrote that he would “continue to monitor the chicken bone situation.”

After spotting rats and birds over a period of weeks, officials in August issued a violation against the company for not controlling pests — but called for no fines.

“What’s the sense of having a law if you don’t enforce it?” Jerry Piro asked city officials at a hearing a few years ago. “We had beautiful mountains here.... Now it’s turned into a hellhole.”

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.


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