Los Angeles political leaders have been under mounting pressure to solve the city's landfill crisis, a problem that seems to worsen with each passing day. It is estimated that by 1993 all currently available sites will be filled to capacity. The search for new sites has been fruitless, in part because neighboring municipalities have become increasingly reluctant to help shoulder the load. Clearly, another type of waste disposal is needed and soon.
City officials apparently believe that they have, at long last, found the cure for Los Angeles' waste woes. Salvation comes in the form of mass burn incineration--once dismissed as too filthy an alternative. Now, we are told, incineration has cleaned up its act and deserves a second chance. Along with a reprieve, the municipal incinerator has been given a new name--LANCER (for Los Angeles City Energy Recovery), making it sound like some Galahad riding heroically to the rescue.
However, many South Central residents in whose neighborhood the first of 10 such "waste-to-energy" facilities planned for Los Angeles County is to be built do not share the city's enthusiasm for the project.
The city contends that it worked to inform the community through three 1985 workshop meetings sponsored by Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, who represents the 9th District and who is among LANCER's chief proponents. But members of the Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, a group organized to fight the project, maintain that were not adequately informed about plans to build the facility or its environmental ramifications.
Originally scheduled for completion in 1989, the $170-million facility at 41st and Alameda streets, a mile east of the Memorial Coliseum, would burn at least 1,600 tons of garbage per day. Proponents would like to portray it as a large community hearth; they laud it as both the solution to the city's waste disposal problem and the springboard for the revitalization of South Central Los Angeles.
Ogden-Martin Systems Inc., the project contractor, and other proponents argue that it would bring jobs and benefits to the community. But the majority of the 50 or so employment opportunities offered by such a high-tech operation would be specialized, meaning that most of its employees probably would be brought in from outside the community. The benefits would include a $10-million "betterment fund" for the 9th District created with part of the city's $235-million bond sale to finance the project. However, LANCER opponents believe that the health risks far outweigh the monetary rewards.
The Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles does not buy the "LANCER as hearth" concept. The group fears that the community would be turned into a toxic ashtray. Of chief concern is the emission of dioxins, the highly poisonous compounds found in the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange. The state Air Resources Board recently designated 15 dioxins as air contaminants with no known safe exposure level. Determining appropriate regulatory emissions standards for these substances lies at the heart of the LANCER debate.
Surely, one has to wonder whether it is merely coincidence that the first site for the incinerator project happens to be a low-income, predominantly black area whose demographics make it the most vulnerable to political manipulation.
It is worth noting that another private firm, Pacific Waste Management Corp., wants to build a mass incineration facility in the San Gabriel Valley community of Irwindale. But many valley communities are fighting the effort, assisted by a campaign spearheaded by the Miller Brewing Co., which was concerned about health risks to employees working in its Irwindale brewery, and about the possible damaging effect on the area. Unfortunately, South Central Los Angeles does not have a multimillion-dollar corporation to back it up in its fight.
If there really were no alternatives, and if the community could be sure that LANCER would not be a serious health threat, the project would be easier to condone. But there remain serious questions as to whether the city has fully explored alternatives such as recycling, which is a far more economical process than incineration.
Despite LANCER's classification as a "waste-to-energy" facility--employing a technology in which the incineration process generates electrical energy--even city sanitation officials in charge of the project admit that the actual yield of electricity would be relatively minimal--enough to serve about 40,000 homes--and that energy recovery was never intended to play a major role.
Everyone involved in this controversy understands the magnitude of the problem. Those who support the Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles do not wish to hinder the city's search for a viable solution. Rather, they want to dissuade the city from rashly going forth with a plan whose negative consequences would fall on that segment of the population which already bears too great a share of the city's burdens.