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Activists celebrate closing of polluting plant near L.A. school

Settlement of a civil lawsuit against Palace Plating ends an eight-year battle over the metal-finishing plant that residents say contaminated their South Los Angeles neighborhood.

December 20, 2011|By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times
  • Community activist Martha Sanchez, right, shares an emotional moment with her children, Gonzalo Romero, 17, and Catherine Romero, 12, celebrating victory in an eight-year battle to shut down a metal-finishing plant across the street from 28th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Community activist Martha Sanchez, right, shares an emotional moment… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

With nearly two dozen parents and others standing behind her, community activist Martha Sanchez announced Monday the end of an eight-year battle to close a metal finishing plant that residents say has contaminated their South Los Angeles neighborhood, making their children and teachers sick.

The plant, the target of lawsuits, fines and repeated calls for its closure, is across the street from 28th Street Elementary School. Wearing matching yellow T-shirts, members of Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry took turns decrying the facility and celebrating its end.

No one was happier than Sanchez, who learned English and began pursuing a bachelor's degree while leading the charge to shutter the plant and protect the health of her three children. She cried as she read the names of victims alleged to have died from the toxic substances.

"Most leaders who start fighting and trying to change something die before they see the results," said Sanchez, who is close to a degree in negotiation and conflict resolution. "I thought that would happen to me as well."

Los Angeles attorney Charles Pomeroy of McKenna, Long & Aldridge, who represents Palace Plating Inc., did not return a call from The Times. Longtime facility manager Jose Tirado also did not return phone calls Monday.

City officials said they did not believe the World War II-era plant would relocate.

On Nov. 2, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge approved the settlement in a civil lawsuit against Palace Plating alleging environmental violations that included the release of contaminants into the sewer system. The plant faced three misdemeanor charges to which it entered no-contest pleas. As part of its settlement with the city, the facility agreed to cease operations by Dec. 31, remove hazardous waste and pay the Los Angeles Unified School District $750,000 in restitution.

"In this area, there were way too many industrial uses next to houses and schools," said Perry, who helped push for the closure while serving on the South Coast Air Quality Management District board. "That was unforgivable. Today we're celebrating an enormous victory for everybody who calls this community home."

School district officials also lauded the move.

"This closure is in the best interest of the school and the community, and we are extremely pleased," said John Sterritt, director of L.A. Unified's Office of Environmental Health and Safety in a statement.

Sanchez, 40, moved to the neighborhood in 1999 and began enrolling her children in the school shortly thereafter. Her children developed rashes, nosebleeds and asthma, prompting the Mexican-immigrant mother to begin going door-to-door to ask neighbors if their children also had health problems.

"I knew if I left the problem in someone else's hands, it would not get resolved," she said.

By 2003, Sanchez had learned English and had become chapter president of the community group, and officials began investigating the plant. That year, AQMD tests found one violation in the level of a cancer-causing chemical, but follow-up tests showed levels at or below the standard.

An inspection followed in 2004, and by 2006, the company pleaded no contest to charges of illegally disposing hazardous waste after its owner, Clifford R. Pierce Jr., died. Later the same year, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control issued a consent order and a $60,000 fine because of Palace Plating's faulty handling of hazardous waste.

The city filed another lawsuit in 2007, alleging that the company was still not in compliance. And although the city's lawsuit was settled last month, another lawsuit brought by 97 teachers, parents and students remains outstanding. The suit alleges that two teachers developed cancer because of toxic substances from the plant. It also claims that another teacher has given birth to three children with disabilities because of pollution.

The school has about 800 pupils, about 97% of whom are Latino.

"This is the most blatant example of environmental racism to have substances like cadmium, cyanide and chromium being discharged feet away from an elementary school," said Deputy City Atty. Patricia Bilgin. "I think it's unconscionable."

The area around the school will soon become part of the Crossings housing program, including 550 homes, Perry said,

Even though Sanchez's children have moved on to other schools, she said the entire area is better off without the plant.

"I need to see every brick falling to the ground," said Sanchez, who plans to go to law school. "That is the only thing that will make me feel safe."

matthew.stevens@latimes.com

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