Following complaints of foul odors and possible debris floating in the air from a nearby garbage dump, residents of the Oak View community have taken matters into their own hands, calling in expert help.
The Oak View ComUNIDAD, which formed last year to advocate for residents' rights, contacted environmentalist Denny Larson this month for an opinion on the conditions in which the residents live — and to teach them how to take the first steps in examining particles, including catching them in the air and wiping them from surfaces.
"We want to check the air quality and make sure that whatever is in the air is clean," said Oscar Rodriguez, a 22-year-old community activist and co-founder of the group.
The residents of the neighborhood — predominantly low-income Latino families — have long complained about the nearby Rainbow Environmental Services site, which has been in operation as a trash facility since 1981, but they felt as if their complaints weren't being heard even by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for Orange and other counties.
"Let's say we're walking and smell something really bad," said Victor Valladares, a 29-year-old resident and co-founder of Oak View ComUNIDAD. "We'll call but by the time the AQMD get here from Diamond Bar — sometimes up to an hour — the smell can be gone because the wind shifts, so then it might be unfounded.... Now us taking control and taking that precise moment when the smell or dust is very obvious, that's very empowering."
On April 8 and 9, Larson visited Oak View with his "bucket brigade" — which included "ghost wipes" and a special vacuum-operated bucket in which toxic gases could be trapped — to train about a dozen residents in community-based research.
For the ghost wipe examination, Larson taught residents to put on sterile gloves, find areas with a heavy collection of soot, swab the area with a cloth similar to a baby wipe and then place the wipes in a special jar with a protective seal to send in for testing. The wipes can detect 40 heavy metals including lead, arsenic and mercury, Larson said.
Oak View residents currently have three buckets but are looking to hold fundraisers to buy more, Rodriguez said, to get samples at various times and encourage more residents to participate.
Each bucket, along with the proper equipment inside except for the bags, costs $128 and can be reused, Valladares said. The bags, which can only be used once, cost about $27 each, and lab testing for each bag can cost upward of $300, he said.
During his visit, Larson and the residents collected several samples to send in for testing. He expects the results sometime this week.
Ultimately, Rodriguez said, he hopes nothing is found in the air.
"If there's a problem, we'll definitely bring that up," he said. "But we hope ... that there isn't anything in the air, because if there is, then that could be dangerous for our health."
Larson, who has performed similar classes in more than 20 countries and worked in the environmental field since 1984, said the Oak View community is one of the worst for air quality.
"It stinks," said Larson, executive director of the Community Science Institute-CSI, based in Richmond, CA. "It really stinks very bad. I don't understand how people can put up with that."
FOR THE RECORD
8:55 a.m., April 21: A previous version of this post used an incorrect version of Community Science Institute-CSI's name and incorrectly said it is based in Ithaca, N.Y. It is based in Richmond, CA.
Larson also visited Oak View Elementary School, where staff members have complained about playground equipment being covered in black soot and having to spend a half hour or more each morning cleaning it up.
"We look at these things as an environmental crime scene in progress," Larson said. "We want to make sure we're protecting the legal and environmental rights of the people of Oak View beyond what's already been done."
The Ocean View School District, which includes Oak View Elementary, is in litigation with Rainbow.
Gina Clayton-Tarvin, president of the district board, said she believes many of the problems have stemmed from diesel fumes from the trash trucks and from the handling of concrete at the trash site. Although the AQMD has stipulated that the facility can no longer crush concrete there, it can still process crushed concrete, she said.
"It makes it almost impossible for the kids to be outside without having contact with [the soot and odors]," Clayton-Tarvin said. "Some days they're not allowed to eat outside because of the stenches."
Although the school district said it could not provide an exact number of children who have reported respiratory illnesses, Ed Connor, an attorney representing the district, said there has been a "spike in respiratory problems when crushed concrete piles were allowed to be [at Rainbow] and dust would blow over to the campus."
Clayton-Tarvin said the odors have also gotten worse since Rainbow took the roof off its transfer station in March.
The AQMD ruled in November that by Dec. 1, 2017, Rainbow must follow a list operational changes, including enclosing the areas where the company collects and sorts solid waste, green waste, recyclables, and construction and demolition debris.
Rainbow is also being restricted to receiving 1,300 tons of waste each day while the enclosure is being built. It was also barred from receiving extremely odorous trash and waste from supermarkets that contain animal trimmings.
Larson said he believes the roof removal is a big reason for the odors.
"Obviously, when you don't cover a bunch of rotting garbage, it's going to stink bad," he said.
Rodriguez said he's not sure residents can trust that Rainbow is following the orders.
"We thought it was kind of weird or difficult to believe that they were going to do the right thing since they haven't done the right thing for three decades since they got their operating permit," he said.
A Rainbow spokesman said the company wants to be a good neighbor, has been a part of the community for decades and intends to be part of the community for decades to come.
"We are the first to recognize that being a good neighbor means building bridges within the community," said spokesman Russ Knocke. "That is why we are expediting facility improvements, including enclosing operations and expanding dust and odor controls. We are committed to working with the South Coast air district, the city and our neighbors to complete these improvements by December 2017."
He said Rainbow does not support Oak View residents testing the air quality on their own.
"We are always willing to talk and work with our neighbors, but those kinds of stunts are neither scientific nor productive," said Knocke.
Rodriguez said Oak View residents will keep fighting.
"If there is something in the air, that needs to be out there," he said. "We shouldn't be advocating for the right to clean air or for the right to not be able to smell garbage. That should already be a given."