Scrap metal plant spread lead, arsenic, investigators say

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — A closed metal scrap facility in the Walnut Park section of South Los Angeles is the source of lead and arsenic pollution that spread to neighboring residential properties, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Central Metal, located at 8201 Santa Fe Ave., is being investigated by the EPA after the federal agency detected a pile of waste in 2019 that had been wrapped for disposal by the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

The fire department reported to the EPA that the pile contained lead and arsenic, both hazardous metals that cause cancer, respiratory diseases and a myriad of skin and other disorders.

Aerial surveillance photographs showed that similar waste piles had been stored onsite since the early 2000s, according to the agency’s web portal.

Central Metal Inc. operated the facility from 1989 to 2016, and a report conducted by the EPA and released last August said that metal tanks were manufactured within its perimeter since the 1920s.

“These operations left piles of dirt on site,” the document read.

The report indicated that the EPA is investigating if the site may be eligible for a Superfund cleanup allocation, and the results would determine if it should be remedied under the program, decontaminated under another agency’s program, or referred to the state for follow up.

EPA started the initial site investigation in 2018 to find out if scrap metal and other components posed a serious danger to human life, and to gauge the levels of toxicity in soil and groundwater.

As the agency measured chemicals onsite, local residents told them that they feared pollutants mixed with soil blew off and had landed on their lots throughout the years.

Thus, the EPA decided to conduct soil sampling tests free of charge to residents with outdoor yards in portions of the non-incorporated Walnut Park and Florence-Firestone neighborhoods adjacent to the rundown facility.

So far, the agency has booked soil sampling at 75 properties, considering the parcels’ proximity to the former recycling plant, and the direction the wind blows affecting lots to the east and west of the site.

Formerly named Damille Metal Supply, the site abuts the Alameda Corridor to the west, Santa Fe Avenue to the east, Short Street to the north and a business named Secured Mobile Destruction and a block of homes split by a dead end street to the south.

EPA does not plan to test all eligible properties, and the sampling is being conducted by the county Department of Public Health in coordination with the nonprofit Community for a Better Environment and Florence Firestone community leaders.

Most of the residential sample area east of the plant includes properties in the city of South Gate, and homes in unincorporated Walnut Park to the west.

Before county supervisorial redistricting lines shifted the area’s representation to Janice Hahn’s District 4 last month, First District Supervisor Hilda Solis pushed for the approval of the final environmental impact report and green zones program to improve the quality of life of residents in unincorporated communities impacted by industrial polluters.

“When I represented unincorporated Walnut Park, my top priority was to safeguard the public health of families from nearby Central Metal, an industrial scrap metal recycling facility that has been a long-time nuisance to the Southeast Los Angeles region,” she said in a statement.

Solis said the county has investigated complaints against Central Metal ranging from illegal storage of hazardous waste, polluted soil piles, failure to minimize hazards and unpermitted expansion of operations.

“I was proud to author the motion back in 2015 to initiate the Green Zones Program so that residents in City Terrace, Walnut Park and across the county receive the environmental justice they deserve,” Solis added.

The program rezones industrial sites in unincorporated communities and establishes 11 Green Zones for 27 parcels, and changes land designation for 14 properties.

Solis said the Dec. 21 action aligns recycling and solid waste permitting with state laws, and sets new goals for waste diversion and emissions reduction. The law amends Title 22 of the Los Angeles County Code and the Los Angeles County General Plan.

With a rusting metal skeleton visible blocks away, neighbors and long-time residents agreed the site should be demolished, and said that during its heyday it brought hundreds of industrial trucks filled with discarded iron, steel, and copper structures like water heaters, air conditioning ducts, doors and fences.

Huntington Park resident Oliverio Chiprec referred to the sprawling facility as an aging eyesore long ignored by local leaders and community residents.

“It is hazardous,” Chiprec said. “It is just that it’s been there so long that people may not notice it, but it’s something that should be dealt with.”

Chiprec, an electrician working at the Huntington Park Recycling Center across the street in the 8200 block of Santa Fe Avenue, said that when the site was active he witnessed lots of bobtail trucks entering and unloading items that were crushed into piles of metal.

Now, Caterpillar machinery used to scoop metal and cranes gather dust and rust in the lot, while a few homeless tents block the sidewalk and parked RVs dot the curb on Short Street.

“[Particles] of dissolving metal and lead blew off and contaminated the ground and airwaves,” Chiprec said.

Another neighboring business is A-1 Motel. Its owner, who declined to reveal his name, said that since he and his family purchased the motel in 1984 he saw about 20 employees working inside the metal scrap property, from where nauseating odors were released.

“Sometimes in the mornings I picked up bad smells,” the motel owner said. “The place has been closed for many years, but now there is a need to do something about it.”

At press time, EPA community involvement coordinator Elena Neibaur did not return phone calls and an email inquiring about the timeframe of residential soil sampling and whether public funds are being considered to tear down the plant.

In 2012, prosecutors from the city of Los Angeles charged Central Metal owner Jong Uk Byum with eight misdemeanor counts, including one for allowing contaminated water runoff with copper, zinc and lead, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Recycling scrap metal for shipment to factories in Asia was a booming business in Central and South Los Angeles in the mid 2010s.

Byum filed for Chapter 11 with the U.S. Bankruptcy Central District Court in California on Aug. 14, 2020. The case is pending before presiding Judge Vincent P. Zurzolo.


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