COMPTON — About a dozen people, mostly elderly men with time on their hands and young women with sleeping babies or squirming preschoolers on their laps, met recently in the library at Jefferson Elementary School.
They are "sensitive receptors," the scientific term for people in the path of pollutants.
"I'm in bed most of the time. I've been hospitalized with asthma and emphysema," said the only elderly woman in the group.
"One of my sons has a lot of asthma," said one young woman.
"She says her daughter has a stomach ailment and . . . a rash," said another woman, translating for a Spanish-speaking participant.
They blame DeMenno-Kerdoon, an oil refinery in the center of their neighborhood, for their health problems. And with a grant from the state they hope to mount a campaign to get rid of the refinery. About half of those in the group did not speak English. None had been to college, and many did not have high school educations.
Yet they must do battle in an arena where the rules revolve around such things as suspended particulate matter, annual arithmetic averages, source performance standards and nitrogen and sulfur dioxide.
The group is applying to the state Department of Health Services for money under a new state program called the Community Technical Assistant Contract Grant Program. It is designed to put ordinary people on an equal footing with state bureaucrats and experts hired by private industries that are accused of polluting neighborhoods.
The Compton group wants a $25,000 grant to hire a scientist to evaluate the performance of the oil refinery a block from Jefferson school on the city's north side.
DeMenno-Kerdoon and other refineries are going through a new and extensive permit process that takes almost two years to complete. The Compton group wants the scientist to help them prevent the refinery from obtaining a permit.
"The people don't want it here," said Joe Ochoa, a longtime Latino community activist and labor organizer who is spearheading the quest for the state grant.
"Maybe this group can do something," Ochoa said.
DeMenno-Kerdoon's hulking black storage tanks cover the block on North Alameda Street between Pine Avenue and Oaks Street. The firm employs about 60 people. Bruce DeMenno bought it in 1974, and Steven M. Kerdoon became his partner in 1975. It recently underwent a financial reorganization under federal bankruptcy laws, Kerdoon acknowledged, and now 80% of it belongs to World Oil Co.
For more than a decade, residents around the refinery, reputed by its owners to be the nation's largest recycler of petroleum, have complained that it is polluting the neighborhood, threatening their health and sullying everything from their laundry to their lungs.
"Even when you roll your windows up, you feel it in your nostrils and your throat. It's terrible," said Sylvia Perez, describing the odor that residents say hangs over the neighborhood.
Macedonia Ponce, 71, and her husband, William, have made their home in the same location for 57 years. The oil refinery was built at least 40 years ago just a block away, and Macedonia Ponce blames it for her respiratory ailments. Two years ago they became so severe that she was in and out of the hospital and on a respirator for a while. A film of oil from the refinery lies over the entire neighborhood, she said.
"I close all my windows and doors to try to keep it out," she said in a interview this week. "But it doesn't stay out, because in the morning the tables and chairs, they all have a film of oil or soot or whatever it is. It's hard to keep our curtains clean."
At the school, complaints about the fumes are commonplace. "Some days it was so bad it actually made certain people nauseated and a lot got sore throats," said Hector Contreras, who worked at Jefferson until this fall, when he became vice principal at another school.
"The first year I was (at Jefferson) was 1985 and I developed an acute case of asthma," Contreras said. "I had asthma as a child, but I had not suffered an asthma attack since then."
The fumes were so bad sometimes, he said, that they invaded the classrooms and the children had to be rushed outside to gulp fresh air.
Indeed, DeMenno-Kerdoon last year pleaded no contest and paid $2,300 in fines and penalties as a result of misdemeanor charges that the firm contaminated the air around the school on two separate occasions. The charges were brought against the firm after school officials summoned investigators from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Kerdoon said he and his partner are doing everything possible, including investing millions of dollars in new equipment, to prevent pollution. The firm, he said, wants to be a "good neighbor." It has a checkered history on that score, however.
In 1986, DeMenno and Kerdoon pleaded no contest to criminal charges of transporting and handling nearly 50,000 gallons of toxic chemicals without a permit. The firm was fined $400,000, and DeMenno and Kerdoon were placed on three years' probation.