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Community Energy Turns 'Lancer' Plan to Ashes

June 21, 1987|ELLEN STERN HARRISBD Ellen Stern Harris is executive director of the Fund for the Environment.

Not since the 1960s has Los Angeles seen an environmental victory to equal last week's defeat of Lancer, the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery project.

But this time the traditional environmental groups were taught a lesson by the black working-class residents of South-Central Los Angeles, who didn't want the $235-million incinerator proposed for 41st and Alameda streets.

They said "no, thank you" to the $10-million so-called "civic betterment fund" that Ogden-Martin Systems, Inc., the Lancer vendor, had offered them. They saw it as a poor trade-off for living with the toxic, carcinogenic emissions of a waste-to-energy plant in their midst.

City Hall has seldom seen such effective community organizing. South-Central's residents were first alerted when Sandy Johnson of CADRE (California Alliance for the Defense of Residential Environments) called Lois Medlock, an acquaintance who lived near the Lancer site. CADRE is fighting similar projects throughout Southern California. The irony is that many who joined in the Lancer battle originally got together to fight crime.

With the assistance of the police department, they set up Neighborhood Watch programs. People got to know one another in block clubs. They began to talk about other threats to their community's well-being. And they started showing up at meetings of the Public Works Commission and City Council committees.

They testified in language that anyone could understand. They got help from Westside and Valley activists who know that what is burned in one part of the city will be dispersed throughout the air basin, even though they might not have believed that the city would proceed with plans to build other Lancers in their ends of town in a furtherance of equality in degradation.

Among the hundreds who became involved were mayors from nearby cities, congressional representatives, state legislators and a number of Los Angeles City Council members and their opponents in the recent elections. Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, who represents part of South-Central, and state Sen. Art Torres, from the Eastside, were particularly helpful.

Many in the community who had never before participated in government proceedings or scientific matters became knowledgeable in subjects such as dioxins and furans. They also let it be known in no uncertain terms that they didn't want 220 garbage trucks, loaded with 1,600 tons of garbage, rumbling through their neighborhood every day. Nor did they want the toxic ash, some of which was to leave the plant by smokestack while the rest was trucked out on surface streets.

With all the talk of benefit/risk assessments, the grass-roots representatives understood that the risk was to their community's health and the benefits were to Ogden-Martin and the recipients of its campaign contributions.

A turning point was reached when the president of the city's Environmental Quality Board, Robert L. Glushon, announced that if the mayor's office did not permit his board to hold hearings on such a significant matter as Lancer, he would resign and urge the council to disband the board.

What should City Hall have learned from this enormous outpouring on the part of its constituents? That when basing decisions on facts, one fact that must now be taken into full account is people's feelings about the facts.

As for what to do with the trash, those in charge need go no further than San Jose and Marin County to see outstanding examples of recycling programs and facilities. Companies like Ogden-Martin should devote their energies to building the kind of facilities operating in Northern California as well as West Germany.

Such recycling facilities work on a kind of shake, rattle and roll basis: The garbage is put out on the curb in separate containers for bottles, cans and papers. When it is picked up it is taken to large warehouse-type buildings in which conveyor belts move the material along. Some of it is shaken in huge rotating cylinders with holes for smaller items to drop through. Other materials are hand-sorted, providing for plenty of entry-type jobs.

Up-to-date waste management techniques and systems are not a mystery. What is a mystery is why the city has been messing up for so long--not just in respect to the $12 million-plus spent on the aborted Lancer, but also on its chronic pollution of Santa Monica Bay.

Repeated discharges of millions of gallons of untreated sewage continue unabated. This, despite promises to the federal District Court in Los Angeles that the city would improve its performance. Instead, the president of the Board of Public Works, Maureen A. Kindel, said that she was "ashamed," and that sanitation workers would be investigated. But it is the mayor, City Council and Public Works commissioners who are most responsible.

Kindel has been at it for eight years. Perhaps it is time for her to step down and give someone else a chance to do the job properly.

Until it is done properly, none of us will fully enjoy this or any other summer at the shore in the near future.

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