Driving near any of the five rendering plants in Vernon may cause you to wrinkle your nose and quickly roll up your windows to avoid the unpleasant odor coming from the facilities.
Vernon has been home to slaughterhouses and rendering plants like Farmer John for years, but while the city is mostly industrial, it is surrounded by residential neighborhoods in nearby cities.
Environmentalists say local residents have complained for decades about the stench coming from the facilities.
Now, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is stepping in and has proposed a new rule aimed at reducing the smelly emissions, changes a Vernon committee opposed in a letter sent to the agency.
Rule (PR) 415, first proposed in November 2014, would require new and existing rendering facilities, which convert animal waste into other usable commodities, to make equipment changes and implement best management practices.
The proposed rule, set to go before AQMD’s Governing Board July 10, is the result of findings by the Clean Communities Plan for Boyle Heights pilot program, which identified the air quality issue in communities near Vernon. Representatives of public officials, environmental agencies, labor unions and the medical community are part of the pilot.
“The very consistent, terrible smell has covered the southeast and forced people indoors for years,” said Mark Lopez of the environmental justice group East Yard Communities.
There are currently five rendering facilities in the entire Los Angeles Basin, all of them in Vernon and relatively close to one another. They are adjacent to the communities of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Commerce.
According to AQMD, untreated emissions can be detected up to 20 miles away.
“Vernon was set up as an industrial city,” before homes were built in the surrounding communities, explains Leonard Grossberg, Vernon’s director of health and environmental control. “Now we need to be able to live in a symbiotic way,” he said, explaining the decision to weigh in on behalf of the city businesses that would be impacted.
Grossberg told EGP the city and area businesses have made odor control a priority for maintaining quality of life for their neighbors, but added the proposed rule changes fail to take into consideration when the smells are produced and how they can best be mitigated.
Last week, the Green Vernon Commission – created by the city to address sustainability and environmental responsibility issues ¬– sent a letter to AQMD asking the agency to delay the rulemaking process for 180 days to give the facilities time to present “vital information” they feel the agency did not consider.
“Businesses did not hear from AQMD until after they enacted the rules,” Grossberg said. “It was all done really without the input of businesses.”
Peter Corselli, one of the members of the Vernon Green Commission, told EGP the rule is a step in the wrong direction.
“This rule is based on nothing but a completely subjective nose,” he said.
Although Corselli, vice president of the U.S. Growers Cold Storage, will not be affected by the rendering rule, he told EGP he is concerned the stricter regulations will drive business out of town.
“At some point they [regulators] are going to push too hard and the businesses are going to pack up and move,” he said.
Grossberg told EGP he believes AQMD’s extra scrutiny and stricter air quality guidelines are the result of the long battle over emissions from Vernon-based lead battery recycler Exide Technologies, which last month struck a deal to shut down permanently to avoid criminal prosecution.
“Right now the public has the ear of AQMD,” Grossberg said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they saw Exide as a triumph and are now moving on to the next target,” Corselli told EGP.
AQMD disputes that claim and says a plan to address rendering plant odors has long been a priority for the community.
“The issue of rendering odors has been around for decades and is not a new issue,” AQMD officials told EGP in an email. “The issues at the Exide facility are completely independent and unrelated to this rule.”
According to AQMD, the agency has received comments from affected communities and requests for AQMD to take action.
AQMD would not say if it will delay the process, but did note that “staff is actively considering all comments received” and that a public hearing scheduled for May 1 has been pushed back to July.
The city’s five rendering plants estimate complying with the rule changes could cost each of the facilities around $1 million, said Grossberg, even though all the facilities are currently complying with air quality standards.
Citing information from the city’s fire department, the commission expressed concern that construction requirements, such as the enclosure of all processing areas, would violate the city’s fire code.
“The Vernon Fire Marshall would object to enclosing any processing areas as it would make fighting grease/oil fires more difficult,” reads the letter to AQMD.
Upgrades could require the plants to close during construction, putting 800 rendering jobs at stake, according to the commission.
Farmer John is the one of the largest employers in the city, employing nearly 1,300 workers. Corselli told EGP further regulating what is essentially a nuisance causing no direct harm, will kill business in the city.
“If we can truck out of California, we can truck into California,” said the frustrated business owner.
The rule change would require the facilities to implement new best management practices within 90 days; and more complicated requirements affecting facility permits within 180 days. Failure to comply could lead to closure, something city officials want to avoid.
“We need to think of all those employees who could lose their jobs,” said Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra. “We want to keep the jobs here in Vernon.”
AQMD evaluated odor complaints in the communities surrounding Vernon over a ten-year period. According to the agency, about 35 complaints were received during that time, however, AQMD inspectors could not trace the odor to a specific facility because of their close proximity to one another.
Similarly, according to Grossberg, the city of Vernon says it receives less than half a dozen complaints a year.
The small number of complaints does not justify such an expensive change in the rules, businesses point out. However, AQMD staff believes the “number of complaints is not a good indicator of the impact of odors on area residents.”
AQMD believes the long history of rendering plants in Vernon has caused longtime residents to feel the odors are a part of the area landscape that they cannot be changed.
During past community meetings, staff heard from residents who filed complaints in the past but saw no change, “resulting in a general sense from community members that reporting odors does not yield results.”
While Vernon’s 7-person committee does include representatives of the rendering plants, other members of the committee say they are concerned the proposed rule change is a slippery slope that could eventually lead to further regulation in other areas, such as food processors and bakeries that also emit odors.
“Instead of working with the businesses to come up with a solution, AQMD is coming in with their own solution,” Grossberg told EGP.
“Vernon is here for a reason…so the smells and industry didn’t bother society,” said Corselli. “Now residential is encroaching on Vernon and attacking [the city] for what it has always been.”