In August, 1985, Robin Cannon opened her mail and read that the city of Los Angeles was holding a community meeting to discuss plans for a trash-to-energy incineration plant.
The proposed site was a vacant lot at 41st Street and Long Beach Avenue in the South-Central neighborhood where Cannon lived with her husband and four children. Just a mile east of the Coliseum, the area combined light industry with a residential population of about 16,000, as well as Jefferson High School and a large public recreation center.
"When I read the notice, I knew right away they were talking about burning trash in a neighborhood where we already were susceptible to respiratory ailments," says Cannon, a senior data processor for the city.
Although she was not a political activist, she had grown up in the neighborhood and was known as a good resource person who "knew where all the services were."
She immediately called her friend Charlotte Bullock, but the line was busy.
"Charlotte had gotten the same announcement and was calling me to say she was going to the community meeting and would pick me up."
The meeting, in the community room of the El Pueblo housing development, attracted about 40 residents and a delegation from the city's Bureau of Sanitation Department of Public Works who had come to sell residents on the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery project (LANCER).
A film presentation explained how the towering, $170-million plant, disguised by walls and artful landscaping, would use state-of-the-art technology to burn tons of household trash to make electric power. This would provide both electricity and jobs to the community, officials said.
Says Cannon: "I was already alarmed. They talked about emitting dioxins and furans (waste compounds that can be highly toxic), but said that was nothing to be concerned about. They would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would dispose of 100,000 gallons of waste water a day. I was worried about the water and the fumes and noise from the dump trucks. I had a thousand questions."
The following Saturday, Cannon, Bullock and others met at the library in Vernon.
"We decided we were going to fight LANCER and any other problems we would be facing," says Cannon. "We named ourselves that very day: the Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles. "The minute LANCER sprang up," she adds, "we saw it as a health threat, but we also considered it an environmental issue. . . . An incinerator has the potential to impact the air, the land and the water. LANCER affected the totality of where we lived and worked," she says.
What followed was a lot of homework, as the committee educated itself on everything from the chemical implications of large-scale burning to the legal strategy of demanding health-risk assessments to block a conditional land-use permit. They packed City Hall for the first hearing. Says Cannon: "We had lots of help from the community--we have two or three professors and a county health commissioner."
By Aug. 2, 1987, when they gathered in a neighborhood gym to celebrate the city's decision to drop the plans, they had become a coalition. Activists from the Westside, the San Fernando Valley and Hacienda Heights were there to toast the victory.
Now Cannon's group--of which she is president--has an office at 41st and Central, with four full-time staffers, including an organizer and a director. They have formed block clubs for education on solid-waste disposal and recycling. They are building 40 units of affordable housing and planning a recycling program.
"We didn't want to be out there just saying no to the incinerator," says Cannon. "We also studied the alternatives."