While record-setting rains beat back the telltale stench, noxious fumes continue to plague the neighborhoods downwind of a meat-rendering plant operated near Vernon by Darling International Inc.
Despite abatement orders issued last year by officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), eight complaints were lodged against Darling for foul-air emissions during the month of January.
The abatement order, requiring Darling to construct metal enclosures equipped with chemical air-scrubbers to cap two carcass-receiving pits at the plant, was made after more than 400 complaints had been filed over the course of three years. After an appeal by Darling, however, the AQMD granted an extension allowing the company to delay completion of the second scrubbing system until October of 1998.
While AQMD officials say Darling is in compliance, a survey of the firm's operations elsewhere shows repeated violations of federal environmental standards. In one case, a Darling plant manager was convicted of nine felony counts of illegal discharges, and two other Darling employees pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. That case, involving a meat-rendering plant in Minnesota, resulted in $3 million in fines - the heaviest such penalties ever levied in that state.
Officials at Darling International headquarters in Texas declined to return repeated calls for comment. But last month, Darling CEO Dennis Longmire told a reporter in Detroit, "I'm not aware of any charges filed." The executive discounted the scores of complaints Darling has received in connection with the 42 facilities it operates across the United States. "Most of the time we have complaints, it's because someone else wants our property," Longmire told the Detroit News.
Records compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, however, show several cases in which Darling's neighbors made vigorous and repeated complaints. In Linkwood, Maryland, between the years 1995 and 1997, hundreds of complaints were filed against Darling's Eastern Shores Rendering, resulting in EPA findings of 52 violations. In Irving, Texas, the EPA named another Darling plant in connection with 10 violations of federal rules. And in Cleveland, Ohio, odors associated with a Darling meat-processing plant have led over the past five years to more than 500 complaints. Last month, EPA officials contacted the South Coast AQMD to seek advice on how best to contain the stench.
Odors are a natural hazard of Darling's line of business, which involves processing the remains of dead cattle and other animals to produce by-products such as fertilizer, animal feed and candles. But failure to promptly handle the animal carcasses can result in intense, noxious pollution.
The worst case involving Darling transpired in Minnesota, where officials say animal blood, ammonia and other pollutants were dumped into the Blue Earth River. Darling International pleaded guilty in December 1996 to five felony counts of federal Clean Water Act violations. The company was forced to pay $2.7 million in criminal fines, $300,000 in civil fines and $1 million in projects to restore the Blue Earth River.
In January of last year, Gary Keck, the former wastewater treatment operator for the Blue Earth plant, entered a guilty plea in federal court to a single count of conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. During his plea hearing, Keck admitted that, under the direction of his supervisors, he had illegally discharged wastewater, tampered with the samples and falsified the records filed with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The next month, the former general manager of the facility, Timothy Guzek, and former plant manager Douglas Nave were both indicted on one felony count of conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act, five felony counts of violating the act, nine felony counts of tampering with water samples, and six felony counts of falsifying reports of the plant's discharges.
In April of 1997, Nave was convicted of a single felony count. In October, Guzek was convicted on one count of conspiracy and six felony violations of the Clean Water Act. Guzek was sentenced on February 5 to one month in prison, six months work release, six months home detention, 100 hours of community service and two years of supervised release.
Aside from the plant-manager indictments, federal prosecutors last May also indicted Meherban Roshanravan - former vice-president for environmental matters at Darling International Inc. in Houston - for conspiracy, fraud and submitting false records. On December 23, 1997, Roshanravan was found guilty.
Darling International has also run afoul of water-quality regulators in Los Angeles, although not with the EPA. Between 1991 and 1996, Darling was licensed through L.A. County as an industrial wastewater source and operated an on-site water-treatment plant. The treated water was flushed into the L.A. River. In 1992, an enforcement action was brought against the company for failure to submit a permit package. Four years later, county officials determined that Darling qualified for less-stringent public sewers: Their wastewater drainage pipes were capped and, that November, monitoring of their water discharge shifted to the city of L.A.
Five months later, in March of 1997, Darling was found in violation for discharging dissolved sulfites - a pollutant produced by anaerobic digestion of organic substances - into the water. Sulfites release an unpleasant rotten-egg smell into the air and can be fatal to humans in high concentration. Federal rules limit dissolved sulfides coming in contact with workers over an eight-hour period to one part per million. Darling was found by L.A. inspectors to be discharging water containing .7 parts per million.
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Calls for comment from managers at Darling's plant here have not been returned. But last fall, plant manager Gil Gutierrez said that his plant was a clean operation. "I tell you what - you can eat off our floors now," Gutierrez said in an interview.
Environmental activists in Los Angeles say the violations and the delays in enforcement action against Darling International are typical of a plant located in one of the poorer sections of the city. "It doesn't surprise me at all" said Carlos Porras of the Citizens for a Better Environment. "This is the classic example of industry taking advantage of the poor. When these companies set up shop in large cities, it always happens to be in areas high in minority populations, yet low in income and political pull."
South Coast AQMD attorney Joe Panasiti said he had no problem with Darling's location, or with the nature of the operation. "Large companies have been locating themselves alongside waterways and within city limits since the advent of the industrial revolution," Panasiti said in an interview. But why do the major polluters seem to land in the poor neighborhoods? "I guess it's a matter of money."
Panasiti said he learned of the Minnesota indictments last month, but said officials at the air-quality district are committed to encouraging business operations in the Southland. Regulators simply need to keep their priorities in balance, he added. "You just can't let the good sense hide the bad scents."