Vernon Workers Fear Job Loss, Environmentalists See Hope in AB 46

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

A Los Angeles city councilwoman on Tuesday found herself having to address feelings of “angst” brought on by a bill to disband Vernon, a neighboring city.

Speaking to a council chamber filled with workers, employers, union leaders and officials from the industrial city, Councilwoman Janice Hahn noted the concerns of “people who are worried about jobs” and “businesses who are worried about their bottom line.”

They have a right to be “afraid,” she said. Losing Vernon means losing a “structure they have come to know, maybe not love,” that has been a “provider of jobs, stability, the ability to feed their families and keep their own households going.”

Hahn made a show of insisting that State Assembly Speaker John Pérez – who was there to testify in support of his bill to dis-incorporate Vernon – report back to the city with an amendment to protect the 50,000 jobs believed to be in Vernon.

The bill must ensure the “stability of electrical generation rates, public safety services, land use regulations, and the current business tax structure,” or else Los Angeles will not support it, said Hahn, who recently announced she is running for Congress.

Hahn took her proposal to annex Vernon off the table in an attempt to remove suspicions that Los Angeles had ulterior motivations of going after potentially profitable resources in Vernon.

A man (center) stands in support of Vernon. He wears a sticker that says “Save Union Jobs.” (EGP photos by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

Pérez went to Los Angeles City Hall to garner support for his bill, AB 46, and he got it, with the city passing a resolution to support it. But ultimately the victory that day was reflected in the jubilation of the environmental justice groups who also helped to fill council chambers to capacity on Tuesday.

While Vernon employers, workers and labor representatives, one after the other, took to the public speaking podium to voice opposition to the bill, another large group of speakers, mostly representing environmental health and justice causes, were there to see to it that Los Angeles put its support behind Pérez’s bill.

“I’m a hundred percent for AB 46,” said Hector Alvarado, a resident of Maywood and member of the Padres Unidos de Maywood.

Tax dollars and the trust of the people in Bell were at stake when the corruption of public officials there was exposed. In the case of those who live in communities around Vernon, there is a belief that their health is at stake.

“We have asthma, allergies, and lots of sickness thanks to Vernon,” Alvarado said. He added later, “I’m also union. I’m also a worker.”

Isella Ramirez, who grew up near Vernon, believes Vernon allows polluting industries, while disregarding the health of surrounding communities. Ramirez is Co-Executive Director of East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice. (EGP photo by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

Isella Ramirez, who represents East Yard Communities For Environmental Justice, also supports AB 46. While growing up in Commerce, a neighboring city that also has a large concentration of industry and businesses, she viewed Vernon as a “cloud of pollution and corrupt government.”

Upon returning from college, Ramirez was “greeted” by Vernon’s proposal to build a “toxic” power plant. “Thank god we were successful” in fighting it, but there is always the possibility the project will come back, she said.

“I hope that you really consider my niece… who is fighting cancer,” she told the Los Angeles City Council. “There is no scientific data for me to know that it comes from Vernon, but knowing the type of industries that are there now, enjoying the benefits that the corrupt city of Vernon gives them, I know that they have something to do with it.”

She believes doing away with Vernon will help ensure “companies that are corrupt and that don’t care about the community’s health and the workers’ health are no longer here,” near communities like the one she grew up in.

While most who opposed the bill argued it would be a job killer, one Vernon property owner took some time during his public oral to dispute the claims being made by the environmentalists in the room.

“People make it sound like Vernon is polluting in excess of other cities in the region,” said Steve Freed, a property owner in Vernon. “That’s just not true. Vernon is mandated by the same federal and state pollution standards that every other municipality is mandated under, so nothing can be built in Vernon that doesn’t receive state and federal approval on the environmental issues. In fact it is important that you know that.”

Pérez went to Los Angeles city hall with environmental issues in mind, inviting activists and politicians who have long fought against Vernon on environmental issues to a press conference prior to the meeting.

County Supervisor Gloria Molina and others called Vernon many names on Tuesday. She accused Vernon of “masquerading as a city, when it is in fact nothing but a company town.”

She also called Vernon a “bad neighbor to all of its surrounding cities and communities.”

She said she fought the “Vernon incinerator” project “for almost decades it seems.” In recent years Vernon proposed a 943-watt power plant that was dubbed the Southeast Regional Energy Center.

She says the city has a history of trying to thwart efforts to intervene in the project by hiring “very expensive lobbyists and lawyers and others to keep us out of the process.”

Vernon officials say they ultimately pulled the plug on the project because of opposition from surrounding communities, but it was actually unable to obtain the emission credits necessary to approve the project. Molina says the surrounding communities were lucky to have been able to “build a coalition to overcome” the project, and to have “strong state and regional laws” backing them.

Vernon officials often say the natural gas power plant would have taken other, dirtier power plants off-line, but Molina says the one they proposed is just as dirty.

“It wasn’t power that was just going to be going here [for local use]. It was power they were going to be selling to other parts of the state, so it was again a city, who was just not allowing any kind of public discourse,” she said.

Though Vernon is subject to the same outside environmental regulations as any other city, Molina feels the city has not shown a commitment to protecting the health of its neighboring communities and its workers. “Had it been exclusively the decision of Vernon, we would have been left with the pollution that the Vernon Power Plant would have created,” she said.

Father John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, on right, supports AB 46. (EGP photos by Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou)

Pérez also invited Father John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, a community activist who fought against the proposed power plant project to speak.

“It took us three years to defeat that. And the power plant was estimated to kill some thirty-three people in a year,” while Vernon “made no intervention to make any changes that accommodate our health,” he said.

Moretta does not believe that with the current political structure, the situation would be any different, “because the bottom-line has always been with the city of Vernon, the money.”

EGP published a story last week about several labor unions’ support of Vernon. This and other related stories are available at EGPNEWS.COM

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March 3, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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