by Joel Reynolds
Proposed by a company called California Thermal Treatment Systems (CTTS), the Vernon Incinerator project would involve two large-scale commercial hazardous waste incinerators, to be constructed in the heart of the South Coast Air basin, in the city of Vernon, within 7,500 feet of homes, schools, churches, hospitals, and food processing facilities. The first of its kind in California, the incinerator would receive, store, and burn a wide variety of hazardous wastes, including solvents, mixed oil, and paint sludge.
As byproducts of incineration, the proposed facility would produce some 19,000 tons per year of ash, dust, and other hazardous waste, all of which would be transported to hazardous waste landfills. The incinerator would continuously emit heated gases at the rate of over 83,000 cubic feet per minute from a 75-foot high, six-foot diameter smokestack. Many of the compounds contained in the gases had been designated by state and federal agencies as toxic air contaminants and proven carcinogens, mutagens, and/or teratogens.
This project generated strong opposition from surrounding community residents, led by the Mothers of East Los Angeles. Remarkably, regulators had allowed the project to proceed without requiring an EIR. Before opponents knew what hit them, the thirty-day statute of limitations under CEQA had expired. With construction permits already issues by the South Coast Air Quality Management District and EPA, and with the support of the California Department of Health Services, and the City of Vernon assured, the project looked unstoppable.
The community, however, refused to give up. Aided by then-Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal Allard and others, they pursued a range of tactics, from protest marches, to legislative and administrative advocacy, to legal action. They recruited lawyers from the Center for Law in the Public Interest and, later, the Western Center for Law and Poverty and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Law-suits were filed under CEQA and NEPA against the Department of Health Services and the US EPA demanding full scale environmental reviews that, in permitting the facility, neither agency had bothered to require.
As the project received more scrutiny, concerns about the health risks it would generate gained traction, including, in particular, significant new information about its potential to generate dioxins and furans too persistent to be destroyed in the burning process. When CTTS applied in 1988 for an extension of its construction permit from the South Coast District, the community opposed it. To the company’s surprise, the District, citing the new information, conditioned the extension on the company’s agreement to prepare an EIR, incorporate “best available control technology’ (BACT), and update its health risk assessment.
When the company challenged the conditions in court, the community intervened on the District’s behalf. Although the Superior Court upheld the company’s challenge, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision. The company abandoned the project in 1990. Against enormous odds, the Mothers of East Los Angeles had prevailed.
Joel Reynolds is a Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its Urban Program. Mr. Reynolds represented Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles and the Mothers of East Los Angeles in their successful opposition to the LANCER and Vernon Incinerator projects.