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Investigative Report

Slaughterhouses and Burning Corpses? Examining Why East and Southeast L.A. Often Smells So Bad

12:34 PM PDT on April 14, 2022

    Farmer John’s factory in Vernon. (Photo by Elmer Argueta)

    Residents living anywhere in the vicinity of East Los Angeles, Southeast Los Angeles, Vernon, and surrounding areas are well acquainted with the potent and disgusting smells affecting the air quality in these areas. It’s an off-putting smell that welcomes neighbors with their morning cafecito, ruins a relaxing porch time with your parents, or messes up your vibe when flying through the 710 and feeling like you’re on top of the world because there is no traffic. It hits right as folks arrive home to open their windows for fresh air after a hot day, only to be met with the exact opposite, a smell of death? 

    Growing up in East L.A., my má would say, “Estan quemando los muertos.” (“They’re cremating dead bodies.”) I’d shrug my shoulders and accept this rumor because we lived adjacent to the Evergreen, Calgary, and Serbian Cemeteries. My dad would often scoff and correct her, “No, son las fabricas de Farmer John.” (“No, it's the Farmer John plant.”) 

    We never really knew the smell's origin, but one thing is certain. The putrid smell has become normalized and hits throughout the year, affecting most during our hot summers, when many Los Angeles residents hope to reduce their air conditioner-hiked electricity bills escape to the outdoors to enjoy the fresh air. 

    East Los Angeles Resident, Alejandro Valdivia, calls it environmental racism. Valdivia grew up in the Cypress Park and Echo Park area. After going to college out of state and joining the U.S. Coast Guard, he’s proud to have returned to Los Angeles in 2017 and purchased his first home in East L.A. 

    “I started noticing the smell when I first moved to East LA. Maybe it's a local restaurant, a deli, carnicería?…and I went down a black hole of research and information.” On this quest for information, Valdivia found information about Vernon's five major meat processing plants: Baker Commodities, Coast Packing Co., Legacy By-Products LLC, Darling Ingredients, and Smithfield Packaged Meats Corp., known as Farmer John. 

    He came across an article published in 2017 by KPCC that outlines the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) approving a new rule, Rule 415, to “reduce odors from facilities rendering animals and animal parts.” The law, which seems to have been created in 2015, was approved in 2017 and details information and guidelines on Permanent Enclosure and Ventilation Standards, Odor Control System Standards and Testing, Wastewater Treatment, and even includes a requirement for all facilities to display an odor complaint contact sign that specifies 1-800-CUT-SMOG as the SCAQMD contact number for odor complaints. The rule continues, “The sign may also include the name of a contact person at the rendering facility to call for questions or to whom odor complaints may be reported.” The usage of “may” seems vague. 

    It’s 2022, and people are still walking out of their homes, being hit with instant whiffs of an inescapable funk. Depending on the day, the wind patterns, and the working-class residents most affected, it is a vicious cycle of neverending nasty air. 

    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.
    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.
    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.
    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.
    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.

    Valdivia argues that he had to sit for hours to find the information outlined above, “the smells are nauseating. On the one hand, you have SoCal Edison asking folks to turn off the AC and conserve energy, so our only other option is to suffer?” He described the circus runaround he experienced when attempting to make a complaint when the smells first affected him. 

    “At first, I visited the SCAQMD website to attempt to use the online complaint tool. Aside from the link being inaccessible, I kept receiving an error message when trying to submit. I then attempted to call 1-800-CUT-SMOG. 

    If you're in Los Angeles, you know that depending on traffic, traveling from Diamond Bar to East L.A. can be as bad or worse as traveling from West L.A. to Downtown. Once the investigator receives the right amount of phone call complaints and heads to the location, their next step is to confirm the smell with each complainant. At this point, Valdivia argues, the scent is gone, and the majority of people who called are working-class and unable to meet with the investigator. He shared he has called multiple dozens of times to submit a complaint and has only met face to face with an investigator once. 

    “It’s been an ongoing issue with the city. We have to move towards putting the onus of responsibility on the Air Quality Management District.” - Elizabeth Alcantar, Mayor of Cudahy

    All in all, the support for community members is lacking. Valdivia turned to local government in 2021 and began to put pressure on LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis. After writing a letter to Solis pleading for solutions, he was invited to sit with her team on June 24th last year and lectured on Solis’ leadership. L.A. TACO reached out to Solis’ office for comment, and they responded 

    “Safeguarding public health is my top priority,” said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis, Supervisor to the First District. “That is why I have advocated, alongside the impacted residents of the East and Southeast communities, to address the grim odors resulting from rendering plants in the region. Upon being made aware of strong odor smell cases, my office takes immediate action and contacts the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the entity with sole jurisdiction over air quality issues, to dispatch inspectors to investigate – including this past June where a notice of violation was issued to a company. Families have the right to live free of headaches or respiratory problems caused by the fetid odors of these operations. To that end, I encourage residents to report any incidents of excessive odors, smoke, dust, or other air contaminants by calling the AQMD at 1-800-288-7664. My office will continue to work with community members and environmental justice organizations to address these concerns.”

    Valdivia argues if it weren't for his independent research, he would not have found the information to file a complaint. Although the SCAQMD has complete jurisdiction over air quality issues, he feels Solis’ has a deeper responsibility to educate residents and hold SCAQMD accountable. When L.A. TACO followed up with Solis’ office in early January to see if they could comment on the difficult and fruitless complaint process, representative Kimberly Ortega quickly clarified that due to redistricting. “We (Hilda Solis) no longer represent the southeast communities.” It seems their office quickly released responsibilities. 

    Elizabeth Alcantar, Mayor of Cudahy, weighed in on the matter with L.A. TACO, “It’s been an ongoing issue with the city. We have to move towards putting the onus of responsibility on the Air Quality Management District.” She shared that after smelling a foul order one night, she went as far as driving around Cudahy after calling the complaint line around 10 PM. She wanted to see if she could identify where the smell was coming from. Alcantar called some friends to ask if their area was being affected, which it was, and asked them to file a complaint. 

    SCAQMD confirmed with her that they had received more than four phone calls within an hour, which led them to send an investigator two hours after her initial complaint. The investigator arrived at her location around midnight and shared that to issue a fine to a facility. They needed six people to confirm the odor. Elizabeth pointed out that it was midnight, and many folks did not have the luxury to stay awake to meet with the investigator to ensure the odor. “The time and wind patterns affect everything too. By the time they arrive at the complainant's location, the smell could be gone, which shows the process is not helpful.”

    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.
    A facility in Vernon. Photo by Elmer Argueta for L.A. TACO.

    L.A. TACO reached out to the South Coast AQMD to request transparency on their investigative process and whether they can do more to ensure the facilities improve in reducing foul odors. Their media representative responded, “South Coast AQMD responds to all public complaints that allege air quality issues. The agency accepts air quality complaints 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Residents who are affected by odors or any other air quality issue can contact South Coast AQMD at 1-800-CUT-SMOG (1-800-288-7664) or online at our Air Quality Complaint System to report the issue. Odor emissions are governed by South Coast AQMD Rule 402 (Nuisance) and the California Health & Safety Code. Under the law, inspectors must confirm odors with a considerable number of persons and determine the specific source of the odor before enforcement action can be taken against a facility. Facilities that are issued NOVs may be subject to civil penalties, and in some cases the company can choose to implement voluntary measures to reduce emissions or otherwise prevent further violations. The District can also seek an Order of Abatement from the Hearing Board, which may impose additional actions and timeframes on a facility found in violation of District Rules. If no settlement is reached, a civil lawsuit may ultimately be filed in superior court. For more information on the ongoing actions at rendering plants in the City of Vernon, please visit http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/rendering-plants.” 

    The language on the district's site is dense at best and not palatable to residents seeking honest answers and change. 

    Upon further investigation, L.A. TACO found that the SCAQMD issued two types of notices to rendering facilities. The first “Notice to Comply (NC): A written method to indicating a minor violation of a South Coast AQMD rule or requirement has occurred, or a request for information from a business during the inspection process in order to obtain information necessary to determine the facility’s compliance status.” The second is a Notice of Violation (NOV) which is  “Used to inform a business that it is out of compliance with applicable South Coast AQMD rule requirements, permit conditions or legal requirements, or with applicable state or federal air pollution regulations and may result in fines or penalties for the owner or operator. The SCAQMD website outlines that four out of the five rendering plants in Vernon have been issued several Notices to comply and Notices of Violation between January 1, 2017, to August 31, 2021. Baker Commodities specifically received five Notices to Comply and eleven Notices of Violation. 

    Often, residents are faced with deciding to go for a walk or settling on staying in for fear of exposure. The city is caught in a cycle of complaints and violations.

    L.A. TACO reached out to Baker Commodities in September of 2021 to request for comment. They responded, “As a leading rendering and organics recycling company, we thank you for bringing these complaints to Baker Commodities’ attention. We would like to explain what is happening at our facility and a little bit about what we do. We are currently completing a construction project at our facility in order to improve our processing and odor management. We expect the construction to be completed in the near future. These improvements to our facility will further ensure we are meeting or exceeding the best industry practices. Baker is in compliance with local, state and federal regulations which govern our business. Continued compliance with these regulations is one of Baker’s primary goals. We continue to make ongoing improvements to our facilities to ensure we are not only operating efficiently but as good neighbors to our communities.” 

    Just four months later, on January 7, 2022, Baker Commodities was issued its latest notice of violation because of the plant’s “Failure to move incoming raw rendering material into the cooking process, staged in a permanent total enclosure or stored in a covered container, within four hours after delivery for material delivered at ambient temperature” which is something they have received violations for several times in the recent years. The problem is that residents aren't exactly sure how the violations implement change? 

    They went on to share, “Any odor resulting from processing of rendering materials is non-hazardous. In fact, the rendering process is actually making the air we breathe cleaner by sequestering carbon and other greenhouse gasses. Our processes, along with other rendering operations in the US, are carbon negative, thereby improving the air we breathe each day. Baker finds it an important part of our mission to not only recycle products that would otherwise end up in landfills but also to sequester greenhouse gasses which are hazardous to the environment. Our goal has always been to leave our planet a better place for future generations.” 

    Dillia Ortega, the Youth Program Coordinator from Communities For a Better Environment (CBE), begs to differ. “There are kids in Huntington Park and surrounding areas who can’t even do P.E. outdoors because of the toxic air quality.” She comments that the plants display large amounts of waste that smell horrendous and are not conducive to healthy living conditions. 

    As of January 25, 2022, Mayor Alcantar and 40 of her fellow South East LA elected officials and community organizations, also known as SELA UNITED, drafted and signed a letter asking the South Coast Air Management District to revisit Rule 415, mentioned before, to clarify on the specific consequences placed on facilities which do not meet the guidelines and requirements to ensure the end to foul odors. Furthermore, they ask SCAQMD to stop placing the endless responsibility on residents to file complaints, only to be met with unreasonable expectations to follow up. In short, SELA UNITED is asking SCAQMD to be transparent and clear with residents and hold facilities accountable for their violations.  

    The foul odors have impacted communities of color for generations. Often, residents are faced with deciding to go for a walk or settling on staying in for fear of exposure. The city is caught in a cycle of complaints and violations. The concerned residents expect the letter drafted by SELA UNITED to ignite change and improve systems to ensure better air quality for southeast L.A. Residents.

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