For the first time in a long time, a Vernon city councilmember asked city staff some tough questions about the $380 million proposed budget for 2015-2016 the city council would ultimately unanimously approve.
Councilwoman Melissa Ybarra asked department heads Tuesday to cut their budgets 5 to 10 percent to help businesses facing increases in fees. She said she was not pleased that the departments have proposed a budget that’s been balanced “on the backs of businesses.”
“We’re raising rates for businesses but I don’t see [the city] cutting back,” she said.
Ybarra question whether staff had determined if the increases to city fees approved last year and again last month had caused any businesses to leave the industrial city.
It was an unusual exchange in a city where councilmembers routinely approve staff recommendations with little public discussion.
Vernon’s independent reform monitor, former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, congratulated Ybarra for her questioning of the budget details and changing the tone of council meetings in the city.
“It’s very refreshing [after] having sat here for years, to hear a councilmember ask these types of questions,” Van de Kamp said.
“These are the questions that need to be asked regularly at council meetings.”
Responding to Ybarra, City Administrator Mark Whitworth shot back that Vernon – home to 1,800 business but only about 110 residents – has an occupancy rate of 95.6 percent, one of the highest in Los Angeles County.
He said the city’s utility and other business-related fees are 60 percent of what neighboring cities are charging.
“Granted, there will always be a few people that want it to return to the way it was 20 years ago, we just don’t have the reserves or cash balances for that anymore,” Whitworth said.
In 2011, Vernon faced a $16 million deficit but has since managed to turn its finances around.
Not satisfied, Ybarra pressed staff to justify why they are adding 19 new positions to the city payroll and the city’s retirement fund.
Whitworth said the city’s past financials woes had forced reducing the number of city employees from 322 in 2007 to the current 255.
“I not only cut staffing, I gutted it,” he said.
Police Chief Daniel Calleros and Fire Chief Michael A. Wilson each said their department’s personnel had also been cut to the “bare bones.”
If employees can’t be cut, can you cut other areas of department spending, countered Ybarra.
“Can you answer me right now, can you cut another 5 to 10 percent overall?” she asked the department heads.
Carlos Fandino Jr., director of electric and gas justified his department’s staffing increase, saying the cost was being offset by a significant decrease in what the department would spend for supplies and services.
“Reducing by 5 percent is doable, but understand there are consequences,” he warned.
The only way to cut the budget further is to cut capital projects and infrastructure, said Public Works Director Kevin Wilson.
Ybarra reminded staff that any increase to fees or reduction in services directly affects the business community.
“We’re asking the businesses to pay for it because we’re not like other cities, we don’t have the residents to get additional revenues from,” she said.
“Is there any way to cut spending a little more,” she asked one final time.
Finance Director William Fox said he too doesn’t want to see costs go up but explained the budget is already very tight. He said the city had reduced expenditures $3 million compared to last year.
Peter Corselli of U.S. Growers Cold Storage regularly attends council meetings. He thanked Ybarra for putting staff on notice and making them answer some hard questions.
Corselli said he’s opposed to the new fee structure and demanded the city to conduct a new study to determine if the city is as competitive as it says it is.
“If you want to silence your critics redo the study,” he said.
Van de Kamp agreed that the city’s rate are competitive but said they may no longer reflect historical margins previously cited.
“I urge the city to report what’s different, it’s important to the business community,” he said.
Before being elected in February, Ybarra told EGP she was not one to shy away from asking tough questions. She was elected during a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of her father, Michael A. Ybarra.
Like her father, Ybarra told EGP she would stand up for the business community.
Desde hace unos años, la Iglesia de la Resurrección en Boyle Heights ha sido el epicentro del movimiento para cerrar la planta de baterías de reciclaje Exide localizada en Vernon, un papel que continuó desempeñando la semana pasada como anfitriona de la primera reunión de un nuevo comité asesor encargado de supervisar el cierre de la controversial planta y la limpieza de contaminación de plomo y arsénico que dejó a su paso.
La reunión del 28 de mayo tuvo todas las características de una reunión tradicional del consejo de la ciudad o de la comisión, incluyendo la agenda requerida, minutos y el seguimiento del procedimiento parlamentario.
Read this article in English: Exide Advisory Group Assembles
En muchos aspectos, fue un paso sólido hacia el futuro para una comunidad que siempre se había sentido marginada por los reguladores estatales de contaminación.
“Aquí es donde empieza la asociación”, Barbara Lee, directora del Departamento de Control de Sustancias Tóxicas (DTSC), dijo con entusiasmo en la reunión inaugural del Grupo Asesor de Exide.
Con 37 miembros, el comité generalmente grande está compuesto por personas que representan a la comunidad, los organismos reguladores y funcionarios electos.
Debido a que la comunidad afectada es tan grande, nos pareció que un mayor número de miembros del comité sería apropiado, dijo la portavoz de DTSC Sandy Nax.
El comité se reunirá una vez al mes para revisar aspectos específicos del proceso de cierre, y para plantear preguntas como lo hicieron la semana pasada en temas tales como dónde se moverá el suelo tóxico. Los miembros del comité son el enlace entre los reguladores comunitarios y estatales que realizan el trabajo del día a día en la limpieza de los productos químicos tóxicos en la planta y en las comunidades cercanas.
El comité asesor se formó en respuesta a una avalancha de opinión pública negativa resultante de la mala respuesta de DTSC a las preocupaciones de la comunidad acerca de los productos químicos tóxicos que se arrojan ilegalmente de la planta de Vernon actualmente cerrada.
Lee, quien asumió el cargo más alto de DTSC hace apenas unos meses, se comprometió a principios de este año para asegurarse que se le otorgaría la palabra a la comunidad en el futuro. El comité asesor ayuda a Lee a cumplir esa promesa.
El subdirector de DTSC Jim Marxen dijo que el trabajo de la comisión pretende complementar las audiencias públicas que se llevarán a cabo. Ellos le darán a la comunidad otra oportunidad de expresar sus preocupaciones durante el proceso de cierre, dijo.
“El grupo estará involucrado desde el principio en el proceso”… ayudando a lograr un cambio y “ahorrarse el tiempo de cada uno” al “comunicar las necesidades de la comunidad”, dijo Marxen.
Se espera que los miembros de los comités consultivos vengan preparados para compartir ideas y proporcionar comentarios sobre el cierre y materiales de limpieza relacionados, y la preparación de los documentos necesarios para cumplir con la Ley de Calidad Ambiental de California (CEQA).
“Nunca hemos demolido una instalación de este riesgo”, señaló Jane Williams de Ciudadanos del Desierto Contra la Contaminación.
En primer lugar, el grupo debe contratar a un asesor técnico para explicar el alto volumen de datos de los miembros del comité técnico y revisarlos antes de tomar acción.
El comité también debe seleccionar un copresidente de la comunidad para unirse a Lee y a Barry Wallerstein director del Distrito de Gestión de Calidad del Aire de la Costa Sur para la moderación de las reuniones y establecer el tono para los debates.
Mirando alrededor de la sala de la semana pasada, Mark López con East Yard Communities señaló que sólo una cuarta parte de 37 miembros de la comisión no representan ya sea a un funcionario público o una agencia pública.
“Es un poco preocupante”, dijo.
Pero de acuerdo con Lee, más de un tercio de los miembros del comité son de la comunidad.
“Realmente tratamos de ser inclusivos”, dijo. “Quiero que el grupo sea eficaz”, agregó, explicando por qué no cree que sea una buena idea agregar más personas a la comisión.
La reunión del jueves pasado demostró que el grupo refleja muchos puntos de vista, y que los miembros están dispuestos a hablar con franqueza acerca de nuestro trabajo, dijo Nax.
Marxen dijo a los miembros del comité que ellos están encargados de comunicar y educar a sus respectivos constituyentes sobre el proceso de cierre, que comenzó formalmente en abril.
El cierre permanente viene después de años de violaciones de residuos peligrosos por Exide que expusieron a más de 110,000 personas en los barrios y ciudades del Este de Los Ángeles a Maywood a niveles tóxicos de arsénico y plomo, productos químicos conocidos por causar cáncer y trastornos neurológicos, problemas de aprendizaje y otras cuestiones de salud.
En marzo, la oficina del Fiscal de EE.UU. llegó a un acuerdo con Exide que permitiría a la empresa y a sus ejecutivos evitar la persecución penal a cambio del cierre definitivo de la planta de Vernon y la limpieza total del sitio y propiedades que hayan sido contaminadas.
La primera fase de cierre que incluirá la demolición de edificios, se espera que tome entre 19 a 22 meses, según el DTSC.
La próxima reunión consultiva se llevará a cabo en junio en la ciudad de Maywood. Las reuniones están abiertas al público.
For the past couple of years, Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights has been the epicenter of the movement to close down the Exide battery-recycling plant in Vernon, a role it continued to play last week as host to the first meeting of a new advisory committee charged with overseeing closure of the controversial facility and the cleanup of lead and arsenic contamination left in its wake.
The May 28 meeting had all the trappings of a traditional city council or commission meeting, including the requisite agenda, minutes and following of parliamentary procedure.
Gone were the loud protests and chants of past meetings in the Church Hall.
In many ways, it was a solid step into the future for a community that had long felt marginalized by state pollution regulators.
“This is where partnership begins,” Barbara Lee, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said enthusiastically at the inaugural meeting of the Exide Advisory Group.
At 37 members, the unusually large committee is made up of people representing the community, regulatory agencies and elected officials. Because the impacted community is so large, we felt that a larger number of committee members was appropriate, said DTSC Spokesman Sandy Nax.
The committee is scheduled to meet once a month to review specifics of the closure process, and to raise questions as they did last week on such things as where toxic soil will be moved. Committee members are the liaison between the community and state regulators performing the day-to-day work on the cleanup of toxic chemicals at the plant and in surrounding communities.
“Now we have the tools and all the stakeholders involved…you really can bring about change” Lee told the group.
The advisory committee was formed in response to an avalanche of negative public opinion resulting from DTSC’s poor response to the community’s concerns about the toxic chemicals illegally spewing from the now-closed Vernon plant.
Lee, who took over the top DTSC post just a few months ago, pledged earlier this year to ensure the community would have its say in the future. The advisory committee helps Lee make good on that promise.
DTSC Deputy Director Jim Marxen said the committee’s work is intended to compliment the public hearings that will take place. They will give the community another opportunity to voice their concerns during the closure process, he said.
“The group will be involved early on in the process” … helping to bring about change and “save each other time” by “communicating the needs of the community,” Marxen said.
Advisory committee members are expected to come prepared to share ideas and provide comment on closure and cleanup related materials, and preparation of documents needed to comply with CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.
“We have never demolished a facility of this risk,” pointed out Jane Williams of Desert Citizens Against Pollution, referring to the magnitude of the hazardous waste cleanup
First, however, the group must hire a technical advisor to explain the large volume of technical data committee members will be asked to review before they take action.
The committee must also select a community co-chair to join Lee and South Coast Air Quality Management District Director Barry Wallerstein in moderating the meetings and setting the tone for discussions.
Looking around the room last week, Mark Lopez with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice pointed out that only a quarter of the committee’s 37 members do not represent either a public official or public agency.
“It’s a little concerning,” he said.
But according to Lee, over a third of the committee’s members are from the community.
“We really tried to be inclusive,” she said. “I want the group to be effective,” she said, explaining why she does not think it a good idea to add more people to the committee.
Last Thursday’s meeting demonstrated that the group reflects many points of view, and that members are willing to speak frankly about our work, said Nax.
Marxen told committee members that they are tasked with communicating and educating their respective constituencies about the closure process, which formally started in April.
The permanent shut down comes following years of hazardous waste violations by Exide that exposed over 110,000 people in neighborhoods and cities from East Los Angels to Maywood to toxic levels of arsenic and lead, chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological disorders, learning disabilities and other health issues.
In March, the U.S. Attorney’s office struck a deal with Exide that would allow the company and executives to avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for the permanent closure of the Vernon plant and total cleanup of the site and properties found to have been contaminated.
The first phase of closure which will include the demolishing of buildings, is expected to take between 19 to 22 months, according to DTSC.
The next advisory meeting will take place some time in June in the city of Maywood. Meetings are open to the public.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard honored five young female artists this week during her 22nd Annual Student Art Competition.
“Every year, I eagerly look forward to this Art Competition,” said Roybal-Allard. “It’s such a wonderful way for our local youth to share their creativity and talent with the community. It also reminds us of the positive impact that art and art education can have on students’ academic performance, self-esteem, and confidence.”
The winners received scholarships and money for art supplies. The first place winner Justine Muñoz will have her artwork displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
All submitted entries will be on display to the public through June 5 in the lobby of the Citadel Outlets in Commerce.
Pictured: (Left to right) 1st Place winner Justine Muñoz, People’s Choice Award winner Batoul Akil, Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, 3rd Place winner Lelilani Gonzalez, 2nd Place winner Sabrina Claros, and Honorable Mention winner Karla Maria Jacome.
Over 8,600 soil samples taken from properties north and south of the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon provided no indication that there is a defined pattern of lead distribution in the area, according to officials from the Department of Toxic Substances Control.
Both low and high concentrations of lead – a chemical known to cause neurological damage – were found throughout the 146 residential properties tested in the expanded assessment area, according to the data used to see how far lead concentrations extend from the plant site.
“We need to continue to do our homework,” said Rizgar Ghazi, division chief of permitting at DTSC. But “we still hold Exide responsible,” he assured EGP. “We are just trying to see what Exide is responsible for and make them clean it up.”
The testing was conducted as part of DTSC’s 2013 stipulation order with Exide, which requires the company to test and cleanup any contamination caused by their emissions.
In March, the U.S. Attorney’s Office struck a deal with Exide to close the Vernon plant in lieu of facing criminal charges related to decades of hazardous waste violations and exposing over 110,000 eastside residents to cancer-causing emissions.
On Wednesday night, DTSC officials met one-on-one with residents whose homes have already been tested for lead to explain the results of those tests.
Saturday meetings have been planned for later in the month and in early June to accommodate residents who could not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
“We are working in a very complex environment,” said Ghazi. “This is the first of a series of meetings,” he told EGP.
The additional data was collected late last year when the state agency began cleaning up some of the properties in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Maywood that had previously been tested for contaminated soil. According to DTSC, 60 to 80 samples, taken at different depths and increments, were obtained from each property.
Ghazi said the agency did not find any concentrations of lead “that would constitute a danger.”
He told EGP that the industrial landscape in eastside communities, which includes a high number of freeways, rail yards and other similar industries, has contributed to the concentrations of metals and chemicals in the area.
In late 2013, testing began in the original assessment area that included 217 residential properties. As of last week, the cleanup at 76 homes has been completed and over 3,900 tons of soil removed from the properties.
DTSC officials expanded the original assessment area an additional mile from both the northern and southern borders based on modules prepared by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to determined which areas would most likely be impacted by Exide emissions.
Last month, eastside residents complained to DTSC Director Barbara Lee that the assessment area should be enlarged to include more communities near the Vernon plant.
Responding to complaints from residents that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears over the years, DTSC has announced the formation of an advisory committee to oversee the agency’s closure of the Exide plant and cleanup of surrounding residential properties.
DTSC is currently accepting applications from people interested in serving on the committee, however the size of the committee has not yet been decided.
Ghazi told EGP the committee will be all-inclusive and there are no requirements for members. However, he stressed the agency would prefer residents who live in the assessment area.
“This partnership will provide an open dialogue for the community to be apart of the process,” he said.
By May 15, Exide must submit to DTSC its plan for safely removing buildings on the site and for the clean up of hazardous waste, including soil and groundwater contamination.
DTSC will review the plan to determine if there are any deficiencies that need to be addressed. Once approved, the agency will prepare a CEQA document and present the draft plan to the public.
DTSC expects to hold public hearings on the closure plan and CEQA document by Fall 2015.
The demolition of the buildings and structures at the Exide plant is expected to begin Spring 2016 and continue for 19 to 24 months.
Cities along the 710 Freeway suffered the impact of heavy traffic after a tanker truck loaded with gasoline tipped onto its side and burst into flames on the southbound Long Beach (710) Freeway in the city of Bell on Sunday afternoon.
The tanker, which fire officials said was hauling 8,500 gallons of gasoline, overturned about 3:25pm on the southbound freeway near Florence Avenue and catching fire and sending a plume of smoke that could be seen for miles.
The rig’s driver was freed by firefighters, and no injuries were reported, county fire dispatcher Cheryl Sims said.
The crash and fire shut down all freeway lanes in both directions between Bandini Boulevard to the north and Florence Avenue to the south, backing up traffic for miles.
The blaze, however, which grew into a second-alarm fire, was knocked down at 4:15pm Sunday. No other vehicles were involved, Sims said.
The inferno heavily damaged the roadway surface, leaving the entire southbound freeway closed Sunday overnight and through much of Monday. Late Monday morning, authorities closed the transition road from the southbound Santa Ana (5) Freeway to the southbound 710 Freeway to limit traffic from entering the affected area.
The north side of the freeway was reopened just before 9:30pm Sunday, but the southbound side remained closed, CHP Officer Peter Bishop said Monday.
City of Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa told EGP the accident jammed traffic on city streets after the CHP decided to divert freeway traffic to Washington Boulevard, inconveniencing local residents and businesses in the area.
He said the City made deployed public safety units to the area to help move “the diverted traffic as quickly as possible through the city.”
“As soon as we were aware of the accident, the City posted on its social media page to inform residents,” Rifa said.
California Highway Patrol officials reopened all the southbound lanes at Florence Avenue on Monday at about 4:45pm, according to CHP Officer Patrick Kimball.
[Updated: April 16, 12p.m.]
“I’m sorry.” Two words Eastside residents never thought they would hear from the state agency charged with regulating a controversial Vernon-based acid-lead battery recycler found to have repeatedly violated toxic chemical air emissions standards.
For the first time since taking the helm of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Director Barbara Lee personally addressed a public meeting discussing the now-closed Exide Technologies plant. DTSC has been heavily criticized for “failing” to protect the public from arsenic and lead emissions, chemicals known to cause cancer and neurological damage.
“I know many feel the department has failed you, I want to start of by saying I’m very sorry,” Lee told hundreds of residents and environmental activists during a meeting April 9 at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights to discuss Exide’s closure plan.
The tone at last week’s meeting was quieter and less combative then past meetings, but skepticism and mistrust still hung heavy in the air.
“We want to know what happened …we want to know who is responsible,” demanded Mark Lopez, director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justices.
Lopez asked Lee if she would consider opening a criminal investigation into DTSC’s handling of the Vernon plant, which it allowed to operate on an interim permit for decades despite being found to have exposed eastside residents to cancer-causing toxins.
Lee did not at first directly respond to the request, instead denying any criminal activity on the part of the department, but Lopez pressed on.
“We want accountability. What happened before was not your fault, but moving forward is all your responsibility,” said Lopez, drawing loud applause from the approximately 200 people at the meeting.
“Would you be willing to let me think about it?” Lee asked.
Lopez agreed, explaining he didn’t expect the DTSC director to make a decision right then and there. “I just want to make sure you respond on the record in front of all of us,” he said.
Lee was appointed to head DTSC about four months ago and was not part of the protracted battle to shutter the troubled plant, but said she understands why residents mistrust the agency.
“It’s important we do not let this happen again,” she said, promising to do things differently moving forward.
For more than a decade, area residents complained to DTSC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District about Exide, but it took an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office to permanently close down the facility.
Federal authorities announced last month that they had struck a deal to close the plant in exchange for Exide and its executives avoiding criminal prosecution for their illegal handling of hazardous waste. The deal requires Exide to pay the entire cost to clean its plant and homes in the surrounding community found to have been contaminated. DTSC will oversee the closure and clean up.
“We won folks,” Monsignor John Moretta happily told the crowd.
However, not everyone is as convinced or ready to forgive.
“I don’t want to hear I’m sorry because nobody is more sorry than me,” said a tearful Terry Cano before she shared that her father had died from cancer she believes was caused by Exide’s emissions.
“You’re telling me this is the best you can do,” she said, angry that there will be no criminal prosecutions.
The meeting drew residents from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Maywood, Commerce and Huntington Park, the area most heavily impacted by Exide generated pollution. Several people said the deal did not do enough to compensate the people harmed by the Vernon plant.
Teresa Marquez told Lee she believes the director wants to move the agency forward, but questioned whether any DTSC employee had been fired over the agency’s handling of the facility.
Lee said DTSC is being overhauled and new deputy directors have been brought in to replace staff no longer at the agency.
That prompted Lopez to again push for a criminal investigation.
“We want to know where they are now and if they are working for another similar agency making those same [bad] decisions,” he said. There is no victory until a closer look is taken at the systemic problems that allowed a company like Exide to keep polluting the community for so long, without that, real change is not possible, Lopez said.
A Huntington Park resident asked Lee to consider expanding the area being tested for lead and arsenic to include more nearby communities. Currently, testing is focused on East L.A., Boyle Heights and Maywood, which Lee explained was determined by AQMD modeling that identified the areas most likely to be contaminated.
“Predictions also come in the form of weather forecasts and they’re not always right,” the resident responded.
Moving forward, Exide has to submit a closure/post closure plan to DTSC by May 15. The agency will review the plans for compliance then present the plan to the public for comment sometime in the fall. Removal of the buildings and structures at the site is expected to start in spring 2016 and take 19-24 months to complete.
“For too many years we did not listen well to you,” Lee told the audience, acknowledging that many residents are not yet ready to trust the agencies responsible for regulating Exide.
“I don’t expect by standing here I will change that, I have to earn your trust,” she said. “I can’t promise you I will always get it right, but I will always give it my best. I hope you will be ready to take one step forward with us,” she said.
“It’s refreshing to hear a different tone,” remarked Maywood Councilman Oscar Magaña.
But for Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzalez, the fight is far from over.
“We haven’t won,” he said, “we just threw the first punch that will change the momentum.”
Vernon residents will elect a new city councilmember during Tuesday’s vote-by-mail election.
Yvette Woodruff-Perez and Dennis E. Roberts will go head to head to win the seat currently held by Councilman Richard Maisano, who declined to run for re-election. Maisana was appointed in 2009 to fill a vacant seat on the council.
Since then, the city ordinance was changed to prohibit the appointment of city council members.
Voters will also decide on two ballot measures.
Measure O would amend the city charter to clarify that during an election with multiple seats, the candidates with the next subsequent highest number of votes in an election will fill the seat that is unexpired, after all full terms are filled.
Measure P would allow the city council to fix the duties, tenure and compensation of officers by any means it deems appropriate.
Voters can mail their ballot or drop it off at the city clerk’s office located at 4305 S. Santa Fe Ave, Vernon 90058 by 8p.m. April 14.
For more information, call the City Clerk’s office at (323) 583-8811 extension 546 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A coalition of southeast cities is working to change their streets one pedal, one foot at a time, reaching out to bicyclists and pedestrians who travel through their cities.
Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy, Vernon and now Maywood are hosting free, informal bike rides where they hope to obtain feedback from residents to help them create a master pedestrian/bike plan for the region.
“Nearly all our neighboring cities already have [bike] plans,” but “none of us have a plan in place,” said Chau L. Vu, public works director for Bell Gardens – the city spearheading the initiative.
The cities are applying for Active Transportation Program (ATP) grants to pay for a study that would ultimately be used to pursue infrastructure funds for bike paths, new sidewalks or traffic roundabouts.
The application process calls for outreach to the community, which the cities are doing during 6-mile long bike tours organized by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. Each tour features a discussion on how to make streets safer and travelable for cyclists and pedestrians.
A ride was held Thursday place today at 1p.m., taking off from Bell Gardens High School. Riders discussed how walking and biking can support the goal of creating a healthier region.
“Our communities have been historically under-resourced,” said Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities – which was scheduled to moderate Thursday’s discussion.
During a bike ride last month in Cudahy, participants said more bike lanes and wider sidewalks are what’s needed, said Bryan Moller, policy and outreach coordinator for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
“Many [bicyclists] said they currently don’t feel drivers pay attention to them,” Moller said. “People don’t feel safe.”
About 25 bicyclists ranging in age from 21 to 60 took part in the ride along the Los Angeles River, stopping along the way to discuss how to improve access to the river and downtown L.A. for southeast cyclists and pedestrians.
“We just want to get a gauge” of the needs in the region, Vu said. “These meetings are giving residents an opportunity to express the type of problems or safety issues they face.”
Commerce Public Work Director Maryam Babaki told EGP she is excited about the health benefits that such plans could bring.
“Encouraging biking and walking reduces a community’s dependence on automobiles, brings vitality and allows the residents to become more active, as well as participatory in their communities,” she said. “It also reduces air pollution and creates an equitable transportation network for all regardless of age, physical ability or income.”
“These are cities with huge numbers of bicyclists and people who use public transportation,” Moller pointed out.
The cities say before now they did not have the resources to fund the cost of developing a master transportation plan for the region, but that could change if they receive an ATP grant.
The application is due in June and award recipients should be announced by the end of the year.
“Here in the southeast, we all have similar demographics, we are so close to each other…it makes sense to work together,” said Vu, adding that “Some of our residents work in the rest of the cities and vice versa.”
4-10-15: Story updated to reflect ride already took place. Headline Changed.
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.”