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An Unclear World : Service Helps Immigrant Entrepreneurs Meet Pollution Rules


The owner of a small Downtown Los Angeles firm knew he needed a sewer permit but was terrified of government agencies.

A small South Bay plastics-forming company thought it was breaking environmental bookkeeping rules but was afraid to ask what penalties it faced.

The new owner of a Pasadena dry cleaners needed an air-pollution permit but didn't know where to go, or how to apply for it.

Getting small businesses to comply with environmental regulations is hard enough. But it's doubly difficult when the sometimes complex rules are imposed--as these were--on owners who speak little or no English.

The problem is particularly widespread in Southern California, where large numbers of immigrants start or buy small businesses. Many newcomers also bring a profound cultural distrust of government and regulation.

Regulators and business groups have long struggled with the problem. Now one group is coming to the rescue.

A nonprofit organization called the Environmental Compliance Support Assn. of California, or Ecosa, on Friday began to offer the latest wrinkle in efforts to spur compliance: practical advice, kept confidential from regulators, in 140 languages.

Business owners can call Ecosa, ask for a translator fluent in anything from Greek to Urdu to Hausa--provided by AT&T's "Language Line" service--and ask what they need to do to meet air, water, waste and other environmental requirements.

"We offer a safe haven for people," says Noel Kurai, Ecosa's executive director.

No one knows just how many small businesses need help. But most agencies believe that the numbers are substantial. The South Coast Air Quality Management District estimates that among auto body repair shops--their biggest challenge--more than 40% are still breaking the rules.

How language compounds that problem is even less well known. But the latest U.S. Census found that a third of all self-employed business people in Los Angeles in small metal-forging and stamping companies do not speak English well. And last fall, when a Long Beach environmental consulting firm conducted a telephone poll for the Orange County Fire Department, quizzing small companies that create hazardous waste, some refused to talk, others hung up, but fully 12% of the interviews couldn't even be started because of the language barrier.

Ecosa's own polling of small businesses, completed last September, found the "virtually unanimous" opinion that all environmental information should be given in the appropriate language.

The El Monte-based association, in operation about a year, is based on similar models set up beginning in 1990 by the Dutch Ministry of Environment. The idea--which Ecosa compares to what the American Automobile Assn. provides drivers--is to offer, at a reasonable price, the sophisticated environmental reviews and planning that larger companies now routinely get from in-house executives or consulting firms. The association is sponsored by Southern California Gas Co., AT&T, Southern California Edison and Bank of America, among others.

"We're set up to help these companies without turning them in to the environmental regulators," Kurai says. Though some governmental agencies have staffers assigned to give free help to small businesses trying to comply with their rules, "when you go to the agencies, most of them are required to put you on a schedule to correct whatever the violation is, and possibly fine you," Kurai says. "Ecosa acts as a buffer."

Ecosa also offers help for the full range of a company's environmental liabilities--from air pollution to hazardous waste violations--not just those within a single agency's jurisdiction.

Some government agencies and business groups, which offer help in English or Spanish, have been fighting the fight for some time.

One that has been helping small businesses for the past three years is the Business Environmental Assistance Center, in Anaheim, which is affiliated with Fullerton College and is sponsored primarily by California Trade and Commerce Agency.

Such business organizations may become increasingly valuable as budget-squeezed public agencies cut back their own efforts.

"There's a lot of need out there," says Nola Oriola-Brown, an air-quality analysis and compliance supervisor in charge of the AQMD's Small Business Assistance Office. For the past five years, her office has offered small businesses loan guarantees to buy new low-emission equipment, extended deadlines, no-fault inspections and other help dealing with the district's rules--in English or Spanish.

"We will walk with them all the way through the process," Oriola-Brown says.

For Help Some organizations, agencies offering help with environmental regulations:

* Environmental Compliance Support Assn. of California (Ecosa): (818) 572-0397.

* Business Environmental Assistance Center (BEAC): Anaheim: (800) 662-2322; Santa Clara: (800) 799-2322.

* South Coast Air Quality Management District, Small Business Assistance Office: (800) 388-2121.

* L.A. City Hazardous and Toxics Materials Office: (213) 237-1209.

The Language Barrier

Substantial numbers of small business owners in Southern California face not only the difficulty of understanding sometimes complex environmental regulations but the task of doing so with little or no ability to speak English. Following are the percentages of self-employed people in Los Angeles County in major small business sectors who say they do not speak English well.

Metal forging and stamping: 33.3%

Eating and drinking places: 20.6%

Automotive repair and related services: 19.6%

Laundry, cleaning and garment services: 18.9%

Furniture and fixture manufacturing: 4.1%

Miscellaneous plastics products: 5.1%

Source: 1990 U.S. Census, Public Use Microdata Sample; L.A. County Urban Research Section.

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