A plan to build a hazardous waste incinerator in Vernon suffered a significant setback last week when a state Court of Appeal ruled that air-quality officials may require new environmental studies before issuing permits for the burner.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kurt J. Lewin, who ordered the South Coast Air Quality Management District to issue permits to California Thermal Treatment Services Inc. of Garden Grove.
AQMD officials said the ruling would stall the project for at least a year. California Thermal would have to apply for new permits and meet stringent environmental requirements, AQMD lawyer William B. Wong said.
"The question is whether a company has a vested right to pollute," Wong said. "They don't. The public has a basic right to safety."
Lawrence J. Straw Jr., a lawyer representing California Thermal, said he was studying the decision and considering an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
He said California Thermal had proven that the plant could operate safely. "It's environmentally sound," Straw said.
The $29-million incinerator was to be built in the center of Vernon, an industrial city 3 1/2 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The incinerator, the first of its type planned for a major metropolitan area, would burn about 22,500 tons of hazardous material a year, including solvents, oils and infectious debris from hospitals.
The incinerator would emit minute amounts of dioxins and furans, known cancer-causing agents.
The AQMD issued permits for the incinerator after an initial health study indicated that emissions from the plant would present little health risk--less than one additional case of cancer per 10 million people exposed to plant emissions. State health officials consider a plant safe if its emissions are projected to cause less than one additional case of cancer per million people.
After the permits were issued, the California Air Resources Board published several reports that indicated dioxin and furan emissions from such incinerators could be as much as 12,500 times greater than previously thought.
In late 1988, the AQMD requested additional environmental and health studies on the proposed incinerator.
California Thermal sued. Lawyers for the firm argued that it was unfair for the AQMD to require the costly and time-consuming new studies after it already had issued permits. The AQMD also wanted to require California Thermal to install more sophisticated pollution-control equipment.
Lewin, the Superior Court judge, ruled in 1989 that California Thermal would have to install the new pollution-control equipment. But it did not have to perform the environmental and health studies.
California Thermal officials estimated the pollution-control equipment would cost $6 million and appealed that portion of the ruling.
But the Court of Appeal found that the AQMD can "attach the conditions which are consistent with its statutory duty to protect the environment," including the studies and the pollution-control equipment.
Community activists and local politicians have opposed the plant for years. They claimed that the incinerator would spew dangerous amounts of cancer-causing agents into the already polluted region. They also oppose the plant because it would create thousands of tons of toxic ash that would have to be buried at a dump.
Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) said the court decision probably has dealt a fatal blow to the proposed incinerator. Roybal-Allard has been a longtime opponent of the burner. She and Straw, the California Thermal lawyer, agreed that it could cost as much as $1 million to conduct the studies required by the AQMD.
"I can't see them going through this," Roybal-Allard said. "I consider this a major victory for the community."