Opponents of a proposal to build a treatment plant for hazardous wastes near Huntington Park High School and scores of homes launched a petition drive Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to stop construction of the facility.
The United Neighborhoods Organization hopes to collect about 10,000 signatures in the next month as part of its effort to prevent Chem-Clear Inc. from building the plant in an abandoned factory at Slauson and Boyle avenues in heavily industrial Vernon, on Huntington Park's northern border.
The petitions will be presented to Gov. Pete Wilson and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, one of the agencies that must approve such projects, a UNO spokesman said. The group launched the petition drive with a press conference in front of Huntington Park High.
"Why in heaven's name a permit would be granted to build a hazardous waste site within 1,000 feet of this school . . . we can't understand," said Father Rody Gorman, the head of the southeast chapter of UNO and pastor of St. Matthias Catholic Church in Huntington Park.
Chem-Clear Inc. already has received permits to build the plant from local, state and federal agencies, including the AQMD. The company planned to start construction this summer. But a recent round of appeals from local legislators, the Los Angeles Unified School District and UNO, among others, has tied up those permits and kept Chem-Clear from starting construction.
One of the problems, according to opponents, is that state and federal health officials never required Chem-Clear to produce a full environmental impact report for the project. Such a report examines a wide variety of impacts, from noise to air pollution, produced by a project.
Chem-Clear contends that it paid for a less-extensive health-risk study that indicated the facility is safe. A Chem-Clear spokesman said opponents are overreacting.
"It meets all the technical criteria," Chem-Clear spokesman Xavier Hermosillo said this week.
The state Department of Health Services and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the project last February. The AQMD, which regulates air pollution in the area, also issued construction permits last June.
The permits would allow the firm to treat as much as 140,000 gallons of hazardous industrial waste each day.
But state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) appealed the decision of state and federal officials to approve construction of the plant. He said the plant would present an unacceptable risk to the surrounding community and that he was dissatisfied with cleanup plans in the event of a spill.
Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and the Los Angeles Unified School District also oppose construction of the plant for safety reasons. In all, about a dozen individuals and groups appealed to the state Department of Health Services and the EPA asking them to reconsider the permits they issued to the plant, officials said.
Those appeals are pending and have stalled the project, at least for the time being, according to state and federal health officials, who said there are no deadlines for deciding the appeals.
As part of the new effort to block the plant, UNO plans to challenge any extension of the one-year construction permits that AQMD approved for the Chem-Clear facility last June. Chem-Clear will have to seek such an extension next month. UNO officials hope they will be able to persuade the AQMD to reject the proposal on grounds that the plant poses a danger to the community.
Industrial wastes, including hexavalent chromium, acids and other hazardous materials from Los Angeles-area factories, would be hauled to the facility by tanker on freeways and city streets. Water would be separated from the materials and discharged into sewers. Sludge containing hazardous metals and other materials would be hauled by rail or truck to a Utah landfill that is owned by Chem-Clear, a subsidiary of Union Pacific Railroad.
Chem-Clear officials have long maintained that the plant would perform a public service by enabling area factories to properly dispose of their waste, rather than storing it in leaky barrels or dumping the waste illegally.
While a complete environmental health study was not done, Chem-Clear did hire a private consultant to assess the risks that the plant would pose to its neighbors. The study by the Radian Corporation indicated that plant emissions would not pose a substantial risk.
The plant would not incinerate wastes, but would emit minute amounts of hazardous chemicals during processing. Depending on the waste treated, those emissions could include tiny amounts of such chemicals as benzene, a carcinogen.
The study indicated that such emissions would cause, at most, fewer than one additional case of cancer per million people--well within the range considered acceptable by state health officials.
The study indicated that a spill at the facility or by a truck hauling hazardous waste could cause injuries, but the study indicated that such a spill would be highly unlikely.
Last February, Florence Pearson, senior hazardous materials specialist for the state Department of Health Services, said the plant has plenty of safeguards to prevent such accidents from happening.
Pearson said the appeal to the state Department of Health Services to reconsider its permit for Chem-Clear should be decided in about a month.
The EPA is considering the appeal of its decision to issue a permit to the facility. EPA spokesman Al Zemsky said EPA officials in the region are recommending that the permit stand. But Zemsky said EPA Administrator William K. Reilly will make the final decision.