In Southeast Los Angeles, where industrial facilities are located next to homes and schools in a predominantly low-income and people of color neighborhood, local residents succeeded in shutting down a scrap metal recycling facility that had been polluting the neighborhood for years. Working alongside other community members, they demonstrated the illegality of Central Metal’s operations and convinced Los Angeles County to deny the facility’s permit.
The campaign first began in 2011, when residents approached Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) to address their concerns with Central Metal. Together, they observed the facility’s operations and interviewed nearby residents. They soon discovered that residents suffered from high noise levels, bad odors, metallic dust in homes, and constant vibrations from truck traffic.60 After conducting further research, they also found that Central Metal had committed numerous violations. For instance, while the facility had a permit to operate on four acres, it had actually been operating on 12. And while the permit stated that Central Metal would only operate during certain daytime hours, it was in fact operating at all hours of the day and night. The facility also committed numerous violations over the years, including three for mismanaging stormwater runoff that contained toxic chemicals such as zinc and lead.61
However, when CBE and Southeast LA resident leaders initially went to their local elected officials to report these problems, they were discouraged by their lack of response. Some of the officials’ staffers even told residents to “move out of the area” if they had concerns with Central Metal, as if that were an appropriate solution for the problems plaguing the entire area.
When Central Metal officially applied for a conditional use permit in 2016 to operate within 12 acres, CBE and resident leaders engaged in extensive neighborhood outreach to organize a high turnout for the Planning Commission’s hearing. As a result of their efforts, the Commission decided to deny Central Metal’s permit at the hearing, preventing the company from processing scrap metal moving forward.
Permit denials are extremely rare; in fact, this was the first time the county had ever denied a permit or had shut down a facility. The successful campaign to shut down Central Metal illustrates not only the power of resident leaders, but also the importance of centering community voices in land use decisions. CBE’s Dilia Ortega reported that the community’s high level of vigilance was key to the campaign’s success: “Community leaders were excellent watchdogs. One person documented everything bad that happened at the facility and even took pictures and recorded videos. We constantly called the Planning Department to notify them of problems, and CBE’s legal team was crucial in working with decision-makers.”
Today, Southeast LA residents remain active CBE members and are creating a new communityled vision for the facility and the area. While site cleanup would be an extensive endeavor, residents are committed to turning the area into something that can benefit the neighborhood. “The community wants this area to be rezoned so that it’s no longer industrial,” says Ortega. “There are three schools within an immediate radius of the facility. Everyone wants this to be turned into a community resource. We are trying to envision what that new use should be, but we need to evaluate the contamination of the area first.”
Due to the success of their campaign, Los Angeles County has initiated a partnership with CBE to help determine the future of this site. Through the LA County “Green Zones” initiative, they are investigating the area, ground-truthing data, and are developing a community-led vision for a healthy and thriving Los Angeles.