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Complaints recycled as much as waste at Sun Valley facility

Sun Valley neighbors of a huge recycling center say little has been done about years of stench and rodents — and the company plans to expand.

March 04, 2013|By Jessica Garrison, Los Angeles Times
  • Despite years of complaints about stench and rodents, neighbors of Community Recyling in Sun Valley say the city has done little to clean things up. Many are opposing a plan to expand the operation, even though it's supposed to enclose it.
Despite years of complaints about stench and rodents, neighbors of Community… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Complaints about the massive open-air recycling facility in Sun Valley flow in each month in minute, sometimes stomach-turning detail.

Rats have skittered off the property of Community Recycling & Resource Recovery and into a nearby business, according to calls logged by the city. Churning dust is said to be "making everyone's eyes burn," making breathing difficult and causing bloody noses among workers at a neighborhood paving firm.

Gulls scavenging from piles of food waste have scattered bits of garbage from the sky. And then there is the stench, variously described in the logs as "a dead animal smell," a "rotten egg odor" and "putrid."

U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City), who until recently represented the area on the Los Angeles City Council, said the facility calls to mind "the cave man days."

The problem was supposed to have been fixed long ago. But neighbors have been left fuming, saying that politics and bureaucracy have allowed the facility to continue to take in nearly three times the amount of waste permitted and process it in smelly, open-air piles.

"Trash, dust, green waste, birds and liquids are very much in the public right of way, in the air and flowing into our storm drains," said David DePinto, president of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn. in a neighborhood not far from the facility. "It's hard to believe such a site is allowed to operate in the United States … in the year 2013."

Over the last decade, the city's oversight has been strikingly inconsistent.

In 2004, Los Angeles sued Community Recycling, alleging numerous violations and vowing to "creatively use every tool available ... to protect our communities and preserve our environment." In 2004 and 2006, the city issued two cease-and-desist orders against the company to stop the processing of food scraps, yard waste and construction debris until it could get the necessary permits.

But in the end, the city worked out an interim operating agreement that would last until an environmental review could be done allowing the operations to be expanded and largely enclosed.

That report was completed in 2012 — five years behind schedule. The city and the company each blame the other for the delays.

Later this month, officials will hold the first in a series of hearings on the plan to expand the operation to process up to 6,700 tons of food scraps, yard clippings and other waste — making it among the five largest waste processing facilities in the state, according to records. The operation is now taking in up to 4,600 tons a day under its agreement with the city. Given the history of the project, many neighbors strongly oppose the expansion plan.

"We're 100% for recycling, just not on the backs of Sun Valley," said Mike O'Gara, a member of the Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Council.

City officials say they will fight to protect residents' quality of life. Councilman Paul Krekorian, who represents neighborhoods near the facility, said he intends to demand that the company enclose more of its operations than planned, and that it convert its trucks from diesel to compressed natural gas.

But the bottom line is that the city relies on the transfer station.

The facility takes in more than 10% of the yard clippings picked up by city garbage trucks and nearly 40% of the food from a restaurant composting program. A crackdown could imperil a recycling system that elected officials tout as essential to making Los Angeles an environmental leader. Failing to meet recycling targets could also trigger state fines.

The city also has benefited from Community Recycling's largesse. In 2008, the company pledged to contribute $15 million worth of trees to the city's Million Trees initiative, one of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's signature environmental projects. City officials and representatives from the company said there was no connection between the gift and officials' decision to stay its cease-and-desist order the previous year.

In May, after contributing about $3.5 million in trees and labor, the company stopped delivering seedlings. It did not give a reason.

The company's attorney, Fred Gaines, said it has been waiting years for officials to process permit applications and environmental reviews. "It has been frustrating," Gaines said. "We have proposed to build a very large enclosure, which will result in an improved situation, and it's taken a very long time."

He said that when Community Recycling, which has no adjoining residential neighbors, started processing food scraps, construction debris and yard waste in the 1990s, permits were not yet required for that material. He also noted that after the city's 2004 lawsuit, the company made a number of improvements, including landscaping, better drainage and new procedures to reduce dust. Air pollution violations have fallen since then, records show.

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