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Sam McPheeters Headshot

Trashing East L.A. County

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A quaint white mailbox announces 1371 East 9th Street in Pomona. In either direction, long strips of grass mark an unassuming thoroughfare that is surprisingly clean and quiet. The small-town tranquility belies this site's importance to the fifth largest city in Los Angeles county (home to the LA County Fairgrounds, less than three miles away). If regional trash disposal behemoth Valley Vista has its way, this block will soon transform into the Pomona Valley Transfer Station, a sprawling 10.5-acre waste-processing facility with extreme consequences for local residents.

The possible site poses an array of possible problems. According to the January Revision of the Environmental Impact Report, the transfer station would add 610 truck trips to Pomona city streets. That's 610 new truck trips every day. To be fair, it's hard for the average citizen to assess exactly how much extra traffic this means. After all, who among us knows how many vehicles normally go roaring down any given street on any given day? A more quantifiable yardstick would be tailpipe emissions, which would rise to three times the regional threshold with this many vehicles. During the construction phase, particulate emissions will exceed the safety threshold six times over. And even these levels are based on Valley Vista sticking to a tight program of mitigation measures.

One gloomy detail hides in appendix H of the EIR. Valley Vista plans to drop the Waste Transfer Station into a census tract holding Pomona's second highest percentage of minorities and low-income families (the tract with the highest percentage is next door), which makes the project an environmental justice concern. The neighborhood already holds a massive recycling plant and wood recycling facility. Although it may seem like a perverse joke to further handicap the most vulnerable population in an already poor city, there is a nice logic to this move from a business standpoint: impoverished communities are generally the least likely to organize in their own defense.

In this case, however, community complacence hasn't really panned out for Valley Vista. The Pomona Valley Cluster of OneLA -- a broad based organization of faith communities, schools, unions and non-profits -- has gone after the issue with tenacity and disciplined organization. After a packed public meeting in March, Pomona residents delivered 1,057 angry letters to city planers. Such outrage could be confused with the creeping NIMBYism ("Not In My Back Yard") of wealthier communities, if not for the simple fact that Pomona already has an existing waste transfer station. It's a mile and a half from the 9th street site. The big difference between the existing site and the proposed site is that the future Waste Transfer Station would handle far more than just Pomona trash, accepting rubbish from a broad sweep of inland empire cities.

Ominously, a section of the EIR labeled "alternatives analysis" seems to state that the project can only be made economically viable if it operates well beyond the limits of human safety. The site would need to reduce operations by a whopping 74% to meet SCAQMD (South Coast Air Quality Management District) thresholds for tailpipe emissions, and another 4% beyond that for SCAQMD's cancer risk exposure threshold. More ominous still, the project would have the capacity to move in the exact opposite direction; slated to handle 1,500 tons of garbage per day, the 9th Street Waste Transfer Station would have the capacity of processing 5,000 tons.

So what's the upside? Even if an influx of employment could somehow compensate for environmental calamity, the EIR only estimates 40-50 jobs. Assuming all these jobs go to Pomona residents -- a big assumption -- that would mean employment for a grand total of 1/30th of 1% of the city population. More disturbing is the proposed facility's impact on future Pomona residents: nine schools sit within a one-mile radius of the proposed site (disclosure: my wife teaches kindergarten at one of these schools). It shouldn't surprise anyone that children are especially susceptible to the tailpipe emissions of 106,000 extra truck trips every school year.

Arguments against the site seem lopsidedly overwhelming. What positives could Valley Vista possibly offer to offset so many profound negatives? Over the course of a month, I made repeated attempts to speak with Valley Vista president David Perez, and we did share one brief, off-the-record exchange by phone. Perez is not some old-timey cartoon villain with a Snidely Whiplash mustache. When we spoke, I found him to be genial and perceptive, and quite aware of the local backlash against his project. But his refusal to engage in an actual interview spoke to a potentially winning corporate strategy. Valley Vista isn't running for public office. They don't need to sell the public on their plan. All Valley Vista requires is for public apathy to outweigh public outrage. The fight is theirs to lose.

There is, after all, one very compelling reason for the transfer station to be built: it will make a lot of money for people unaffected by its mess (you just have to be one of the plant's owners to be compelled by this reason). In the meantime, citizens of Pomona are continuing to make their voices heard.

If you live in Los Angeles county and have any interest in environmental justice, corporate responsibility, childhood development, or general human decency, this is the time to make your voice heard as well. You can start by befriending the "Don't Trash Pomona!" page on Facebook. A public Planning Commission hearing is slated for next month.