TORRANCE — When Eleazar Ybarra returned from work one windy Saturday about two months ago, he found his house covered with black dust.
The dust had seeped into his garage and soiled clothing stored there, he said. A black layer covered the water in the swimming pool in his backyard.
The dirt washed off the clothes, but Ybarra, 42, has dismantled the above-ground pool. "We just got tired of cleaning the pool every day," he said last week. "Even my boy said he didn't want to do it anymore."
For Ybarra and some other longtime residents of the El Pueblo neighborhood, which has about 110 houses and lies in the shadow of the Mobil Oil refinery, hosing driveways and washing cars has become almost a daily routine in a never-ending battle against dust.
Firm Sprinkles Coke
Residents say the dust blows from outdoor piles of petroleum coke in the Mobil plant directly behind their homes, although the company that manages the piles says it is complying with air-quality rules.
John Beerkle, operations manager for International Minerals & Chemical Corp. of Long Beach, which runs the stockpile operation, defended it but declined to discuss the matter further.
Coke is a byproduct in the oil-refining process that is used primarily in the Orient as fuel.
Automatic sprinklers are used to dampen the coke piles and prevent dust from escaping, but on especially windy days the sprinkling makes the problem worse by splattering homes with black drops of water, residents say.
They say the problem has existed for more than 20 years, and although there is still some question whether the dust poses a health threat, many older residents have simply accepted the annoying black dust as part of living in a neighborhood that was once substandard housing for poor immigrant steelworkers.
But now many of the children of those predominantly Mexican immigrants have taken over those homes and improved them, and they are beginning to fight back.
Meeting on Extension
Ruben Ordaz, president of El Pueblo Homeowners Assn., hopes to collect signatures this weekend on a petition asking the South Coast Air Quality Management District to deny the operator an extension on a variance that would allow the firm to continue storing the coke in open piles.
The district will hold a public hearing Tuesday on a request by International Minerals & Chemical for an extension of up to a year on an exemption from a district rule that requires all coke stockpilers to enclose their facilities. The hearing will start at 9:30 a.m. at the district's A. A. McCandless Auditorium, 9150 Flair Drive, El Monte.
International Minerals took over operation of the coke storage facility on Mobil property at 19500 Crenshaw Blvd. this year from Great Lakes Carbon Corp., which had operated it since the 1960s.
The Torrance City Council last week passed a resolution asking the district to allow the variance for only one year. During that time, the resolution said, International Minerals should be required to start planning an enclosed storage facility.
Rules Rated Insufficient
Monte McElroy, the city's environmental quality administrator, said the city cannot force the firm to build the enclosure because the district's rules supersede the city's. But she said the city's message to the district should be strong because she does not believe the district's rules are sufficient.
"Since there is no mechanism available to determine health problems that may be caused by this substance, this plan will not suffice to mitigate potential air pollution problems associated with open storage of petroleum coke," she told the City Council last week.
In December, 1983, the district adopted a rule that required coke storage operators to begin construction of enclosures by July 1, 1985, and to enclose all stored coke by June 30, 1986. The district adopted the rule because of numerous complaints, primarily by residents in the Carson-Wilmington area, that petroleum coke dust was blanketing their homes and posed a health threat.
However, a company can get a waiver from the rule, subject to annual review, if it meets certain requirements and can show that its dust control measures do not violate any of the district's other air quality rules.
Among the requirements:
- Coke cannot be piled or handled within 65 feet of a residential property.
- Piles cannot be within 70 feet of a street or highway.
- Piles cannot be higher than 30 feet.
- A permanent water spray system that can cover all stockpiled coke must be installed.
- Water must be sprayed periodically and whenever the wind speed exceeds 15 miles per hour.
- Trucks leaving the site and rail cars entering and leaving the site must be washed.
- No more than 200,000 tons of coke can be stockpiled at a time.
Manager Defends Operation
International Minerals says it has met those requirements, and the district granted it a temporary exemption from the rule. The exemption expires Oct. 14.