By Alfredo Santana
BOYLE HEIGHTS — A bill that would fight non-vehicular air polluters as a tool to deter rendering plants from releasing foul odors near blue-collar communities has been proposed by an Eastside state legislator.
At a press conference April 25 outside Resurrection Catholic Church, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago discussed Assembly Bill 2910.
With Santiago were County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Msgr. John Moretta from Resurrection Church and Terry Gonzalez, a local resident with health issues caused by pollutants.
Santiago said AB 2910 will increase fines against industrial polluters and hit them where it hurts.
“Our kids in our communities are surrounded with smells of stench,” Santiago said. “Right down the street, we have five rendering plants that continue to get fined and don’t follow the law.
AB 2910, amended by the Assembly on April 20, would raise daily penalties ranging from $5,000 and $10,000 to $15,000 on plants that process animal carcasses, on companies engaged in oil and gas drilling, landfills, waste treatment plants, power plants and others anytime a notice of violation for odors is filed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
More serious violations could carry penalties of $30,000 a day until the issue is resolved, and those higher than $15,000 can be contended by the parties accused of air contamination if they can establish that it “was caused by an act that was not the result of intentional conduct or negligent conduct.”
Santiago, who represents the 53rd Assembly District encompassing Boyle Heights, Huntington Park and Vernon, pledged to have it on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for his signature this year.
The issue of foul smells drifting from processing plants in Vernon is not new, as complaints from neighbors have been documented with the air quality agency for decades.
However, a series of complaints from residents alleging odors from animals traced to Baker Commodities Inc. earlier this year prompted the SCAQMD to file a notice of violation on Jan. 20 for failure to process carcasses within four hours, impacting the public.
The furor generated by the foul odors ignited a pushback from area leaders, who wrote a letter condemning the smell to the SCAQMD and demanded accountability from the alleged culprits.
Other rendering companies conducting operations in Vernon are Coast Packaging Co., Darling Ingredients, Legacy By-Products, and Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp., also registered as Farmer John.
Santiago said the current fine of $5,000 is the daily cost of doing business and some companies have a history of recurrent penalties because they have deep pockets and disregard poor communities composed of migrants and essential workers.
“Enough is enough,” Santiago said. “Our communities deserve clean air. Eight out of 10 voters see pollution as the most important issue in the area.”
Moretta, who has served as a priest at Resurrection Church for nearly 40 years, said he is behind the efforts to hold industries and facility operators accountable for air pollution.
“The AQMD and the LAUSD have concluded that this is a highly polluted area,” Moretta said. “The district summarized that [local] schools are the most polluted in this community.”
The proposed legislation also seeks to increase liabilities up to $45,000 against owners and operators of facilities that contaminate air if releases cause injuries to a “considerable number of persons or the public,” and to $35,000 on individuals or corporations accused of foul emissions by negligence.
If the emissions cause great bodily injury or death, the bill would impose penalties on the operators for up to $100,000.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis said that a deeper issue is the corporate culture of air polluters that have settled within close range of neighborhoods and have dumped toxins and fouled the air with near impunity.
She also blamed smaller industrial plants for failure to protect their workers’ health, causing them permanent loss of smell and other serious conditions.
She recalled that her father toiled at a lead battery facility in Commerce and was diagnosed with poisoning for being exposed to the metal for years.
“Let’s think about those employees that work in those factories,” Solis said. “Children have high rates of asthma and some have high rates of heart disease. This is a health issue. It’s not only about going against bad actors. It’s more than that.”
Resident Terry Gonzalez told reporters that her family roots in the region date back to the 1800s, and previous generations also had to cope with industrial polluters that settled in Vernon.
Gonzalez said her ancestors lived with asthma, she battles tumors and liver disease caused by lead from the defunct Exide Technologies plant and her parents and siblings often had to rely on oxygen tanks to improve their lungs’ health.
“That is not just asthmatic,” she said. “Those are the health effects that long term pollution have had” on her and her family.
When she attended high school, Gonzalez said she had to quit a choir class because she could not breathe well, and she resorted to move her son to a school outside the area to shield him against respiratory illnesses.
“Here, he could not breathe,” Gonzalez said. “This should not happen. We have to contact these companies and make them pay a higher price for doing business here. Their lack of regard for our communities is disgusting.”
Gonzalez thanked Santiago for the bill and asked the audience to support the passage of AB 2910.
Santiago explained his bill acts as a supplement to AB 617 in that it brings stiffer financial penalties to air pollutant facilities already regulated on greenhouse emissions and airborne contaminants.
Victor Yip, the SCAQMD’s assistant deputy executive officer of compliance and enforcement, said his agency has the authority to enter facilities and enforce notices of violations.
Recently, the air quality management agency has been criticized for Rule 415 guidelines that call for six complainants to an occurrence to log a violation notice, particularly when a foul odor is picked up overnight when most residents are asleep.
Yip said district personnel can be dispatched immediately to investigate odor complaints day or night.
“We are open 24/7, and people can call us or reach us anytime,” Yip said.
If approved, AB 2910 would amend several sections of the California Health and Safety Code on air pollution.