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Lawmakers Fear Losing Battle on Toxic Waste Plant

December 01, 1988|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

HUNTINGTON PARK — Still reeling from their recent failure to stop the state's first commercial toxic waste incinerator in Vernon, local lawmakers said they may lose a similar battle over another proposed toxic waste plant a mile away.

The state Department of Health Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are considering granting Pennsylvania-based Chem-Clear Inc. final permits to build a toxic waste chemical treatment facility one mile from the site of the controversial hazardous waste burner.

Local lawmakers said this week that they suspect federal and state health officials are on the verge of granting permits without ordering a full environmental impact report for the proposed treatment plant at Slauson and Boyle avenues.

"It would seem that that is the case," said Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes (D-Los Angeles), one of two Assembly members who conducted a public hearing Tuesday on toxic substances near public schools. "I get the impression that they are going to sit back and let it happen," she said in an interview after the hearing.

Impact Report Discussed

Two state health officials attending the hearing acknowledged that they have not ordered Chem-Clear to prepare an impact report. But they declined to say whether they are planning to approve the construction plans without it. When asked after the hearing whether the department plans to issue a permit without requiring an environmental report, health services spokesman Peter Peterson said, "I can't say if that is the case."

The Assembly Education Committee hearing, held at Huntington Park High School--within 1,000 feet of the site of the proposed Chem-Clear plant--was convened to gather information for legislators who want to strengthen existing laws and introduce new anti-toxic waste legislation.

The new laws would be designed to protect the millions of schoolchildren who attend the state's 11,000 public schools from exposure to toxic substances, including asbestos.

Hughes, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, said schoolchildren statewide are increasingly being exposed to dangerous substances. "Our students', our children's lives are in jeopardy," she said before hearing testimony about several schools that have recently been affected by nearby hazardous waste.

Asbestos Danger

Richard Steffens, an official with the Assembly Office of Research, said only about 2,000 schools have submitted plans to remove asbestos from their buildings. "No one knows how many schools have escaping asbestos fibers," Steffens said. Asbestos causes a variety of lung ailments, including cancer, Steffens said.

"What good are math and reading skills if our children's lives are captive to an environment that is unhealthy," Hughes said as she opened the sparsely attended conference, which included testimony by 18 state officials, local activists, teachers and students.

She said the Huntington Park site was selected because of local concerns over the Chem-Clear project. In recent months, teachers and high school students staged rallies and collected residents' signatures on petitions protesting the proposed plant. The petitions were sent to Gov. George Deukmejian by the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

"That (the plant) is certainly a kind of dramatic illustration of the imminent danger that our children face," she said.

The Chem-Clear plant would neutralize up to 60,000 gallons daily of cyanide, hexavalent chromium and other hazardous chemicals. The diluted chemicals are then disposed of in local landfills or the county sewer system.

Chem-Clear officials have attempted to calm fears of a chemical spill or leak into the surrounding environment.

Company Spokesman

"Chem-Clear is a company concerned with the quality of life and understands the concerns people naturally have when the term 'hazardous waste' is used," Chem-Clear spokesman Xavier Hermosillo said Wednesday in a telephone interview. The plant "operates in a closed system from start to finish," he said. A closed system, Hermosillo addeded, is one in which the chemicals are handled "in such a way that they are never exposed to open air."

He also said he does not believe that state approval is imminent.

The EPA two weeks ago approved a plan by the Orange County-based California Thermal Treatment Services Inc. to begin building the $29-million waste incinerator on Bandini Boulevard, about a mile north of the Chem-Clear site.

The approval came two months after the company received state permits, despite the intense lobbying efforts of local politicians and community leaders. Among other things, local community leaders complained that the incinerator site would be too close to residents of the densely populated suburban section of Southeast county.

"The CTTS approval set a dangerous precedent," Bell City Councilman George Cole said in a recent interview. Bell is one of 5 small cities that surround industrial Vernon.

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