By Shirley Hawkins
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Officials from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control addressed a community meeting at Holman United Methodist Church Oct. 22 on how waste emissions from manufacturing plants continue to impact resident’s health and quality of life.
For decades, manufacturing plants have been granted permits by the state to operate in underserved communities without impunity. Fumes and emissions emanating from the plants have been linked to numerous health problems including asthma, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, leukemia and myeloma.
SB 673, a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, authorizes the Department of Toxic Substances Control to regulate the generation and disposal of hazardous waste and also cracks down on the issuance and flow of permits that allow hazardous waste plan facilities to spew toxic substances in communities without adhering to strict environmental guidelines.
To further make the issuance of permits more transparent, the department has finalized a rule-making package and an accountable consideration of facility compliance history.
To initiate better transparency and communication with residents, Department of Toxic Substances Control officials listened to comments from community members who felt that nearby toxic waste facility plants continue to pollute communities of color by emitting toxic chemicals into the soil, water and air.
“The state of California has never denied a waste facility plant a permit,” Martha Dina Arguello, assistant director for environmental justice for the department. “The passage of SB 673 is a community demand to address pollution. We want healthy and vibrant communities and we want to hear about your experiences, your family and your community.”
“We want to turn the telescope around and look at these issues from your perspective,” added Barbara Lee, director of the department. “We have been trying to make the laws stronger and more effective and to make products from these plants safer and less toxic.”
According to department statistics, there are 81 waste plant facilities with active hazardous waste permits operating in California and two dozen facilities in the Los Angeles region that treat, store and recycle hazardous waste.
Department employees presented a slide show outlining new rules and regulations regarding the permitting and regulation of toxic waste facilities. The department also has implemented facility action pathways to monitor waste facilities that show a high level of potential impact on the community.
Residents were then encouraged to participate in breakout sessions where they expressed their concerns about toxic waste and made suggestions on how to inform community members about toxic substances in their neighborhoods.
“Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, we know and understand that these chemicals in the air and in the ground are not going to be good to your body,” said one participant. “It can lead to cancer, leukemia and diabetes. I live in Watts and the water there is turning light brown,” she said, adding that the Watts zip code 90011 is the deadliest zip code in Los Angeles.
“I’m sure that if you put one of these facilities near his child’s school in Beverly Hills, Stephen Spielberg would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ But we don’t have the resources to stop the building of these plants. I’m certain that you can’t build one of these waste facilities in Beverly Hills or Highland Park.”
“Too many people can smell the toxic fumes in their neighborhoods and then you can feel your eyes burning,” said Shirley Gamble, who traveled from Compton to attend the meeting. “We don’t know anything about these existing facilities. There needs to be better ways to notify people about the pollution.”
Community advocate Cynthia Babich said, “People find that when they go to the hospital, their families have already been impacted by these toxic fumes. By that time, it’s too late. There’s a lack of transparency when these permits are issued to these hazardous waste plants.”
“The problem is, these facilities do not communicate with their neighbors,” another participant said. “There needs to be more accessibility to information.”
Sandy Berg, chief executive officer of Pacific Resource Recovery Services in Boyle Heights, paid rapt attention to the proceedings. She said her company has always been mindful regarding its impact on the environment.
“Before the DTSC regulations started, my company began recycling paint-related waste streams from our auto body collision shop,” she said.
“I wanted to truly understand the cumulative impact of pollution on the environmental justice community and how businesses like mine could be part of the solution,” Berg said. “There’s a need for the right communication and transparency and getting that information to the community. We just haven’t found the right methods yet.”
One fierce advocate of industrial pollution who attended the meeting was activist Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment in Wilmington.
Marquez, who has fought against industrial pollution for more than 40 years, lived across the street from the old Fletcher Oil refinery. When he was 16, the refinery blew up. Two blasts generated enough heat to force the family to run for their lives and escape over the backyard fence. The blasts proved to be tragic — two workers were killed and 150 people were burned.
Marquez said he never forgot the incident and often challenges oil companies and other hazardous waste sites, having stopped 14 projects at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. He has filed complaints with the Air Quality Management District against four Harbor-area refineries.
Marquez suggested that a public health survey be conducted in affected neighborhoods that would canvass three miles around nearby hazardous waste facilities.
“Then residents could come back five years later and compare whether there was a rise in health disparities,” he said. “Each facility should have a grade or a score to see if they have been adhering to safety regulations.”
Linda Cleveland of the Watts Clean Air Energy Committee said, “Polluters have been operating in Watts for as long as I can remember and they continue to pollute the air, soil and water. The water in Watts was turning yellow, brown and black.
“The Department of Water and Power said that the water pipes are old and that’s why the water changes colors. They said they flushed the pipes, but I still buy bottled water,” Cleveland added. “We don’t know where the fumes are coming from. My sister has been complaining about the smell of oil coming from oil wells near her church. People know there are plants and diesel trucks around. Several people I know have developed asthma.”
“There should be a way to backtrack on which of these facilities have been issued permits,” Cleveland said. “If companies had to pay for damages done to the community, it would be very unprofitable for the companies.”
The state officials thanked the residents for their input and said that the suggestions would be duly noted.
“Our department and the state have made a commitment to address issues of environmental justice,” said Nelline Kowbel, the department’s acting permitting division chief. “This is the right time to collect input for the regulations.”