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A good move for South L.A. neighborhood

As part of a plan to bring affordable housing to a gritty part of town, city officials want to relocate a metal finishing firm charged with illegal dumping.

December 22, 2009|By Scott Gold

She joined forces with the nonprofit Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known by its acronym ACORN, becoming president of her neighborhood chapter. That gave her a bigger platform. City Hall began taking notice. Government regulators came next.

In 2003, the AQMD began air monitoring. Some early tests showed high levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical used in plating, though the tests generally showed levels at or below those typical for the region. (School officials said 28th Street is safe for students and teachers, and that a couple of years ago they vacated two bungalow-style classrooms closest to the plant after inspectors found excessive airborne levels of tetrachloroethylene, a chemical often used in metalworking.)

In 2006, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control issued a consent order after finding flaws in the way the company handled hazardous waste, including inadequate piping containment. That action came with a $60,000 fine.

And the Los Angeles city attorney's office has twice brought criminal charges, alleging that the company had exceeded allowable levels of several chemicals and dumped them onto the ground and into the sewer. The company pleaded no contest to illegal disposal in one case and is expected to be arraigned in the other soon.

Two lawsuits also were brought by 97 teachers, parents and students. Sanchez is the lead plaintiff in one; the suits have now been combined. The suit alleges, among other things, that two veteran teachers' cancers were tied to the pollution. It says that another teacher has given birth to three children with disabilities -- two have autism, and the third suffers from seizures and scoliosis.

Vincent Vallin Bennett, the attorney representing the group, contended that Palace Plating was "basically a company that looked toward profit and money" without regard for "health and welfare." And yet, illustrating the dizzying activity surrounding Palace Plating, the suit is stalled for now, Bennett said. In the latest criminal case, corporate officers have cited their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination -- meaning they can't be deposed in the civil case.

Sanchez said the fight has been exhausting from the start. Now 39, she's been thrown out of meetings, and plant managers have threatened to call the police on her, she said. Between zoning changes, environmental rules and other issues, an estimated 150 government officials have had to sign off just to get to this point.

Sanchez, now the chairwoman of ACORN's board of directors in Los Angeles, said the years of fighting Palace Plating will have all been worth it if the deal comes together. She's hopeful -- but said she'll believe it when she sees it.

"There have been so many promises," she said. "I thought it was just a dream. Someone will have to pinch me."

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