In December 2011, thanks to a years-long campaign by Liberty Hill grantee Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), a major environmental justice victory was announced.
Palace Plating Company, a metal finishing plant that had for years contaminated a residential neighborhood and sickened children at a local elementary school, finally closed. News reports describing the grassroots victory compared community leader Martha Sanchez to Erin Brockovich, the lawyer with an attitude played by Julia Roberts in the Hollywood movie.
The comparison isn’t far-fetched. Martha and others who live near Palace Plating fought to save their families from effects of cancer-causing toxins, including chromium―the chemical that devastated the town where Brockovich battled Pacific Gas & Electric. And Martha may share the famous lawyer’s profession before long: To better wage her campaign against Palace Plating, she has learned English, obtained her G.E.D, and is currently in her senior year of college, making plans for law school. In transforming her community, she transformed herself.
In the beginning, Martha Sanchez was simply a Spanish-speaking immigrant mom with sick kids—whose symptoms had developed when they moved to a working- class neighborhood near the venerable 28th Street Elementary School, established in 1895. Martha worried about the smelly mist emanating from the Palace Plating facility near the school. Zoning laws had allowed the facility to be located there in 1941. Martha also worried about the chemical hosing done, doors open, in a building right on the sidewalk where parents waited for their kids after school. She asked neighbors about their children’s nosebleeds, stomachaches, headaches, dizziness and asthma attacks.
At meetings required under state law to inform residents of hazardous materials used at the facility, she refused to accept the line, “There’s nothing to worry about,” and asked why residents shouldn’t worry about cancer-causing substances being released into the environment.
And she was right.
The mostly Latino parent activists attracted the support of community organizers who, as Martha does, now belong to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). Liberty Hill provided grants to ACCE in 2004 and 2005 from the Environmental Justice Fund and again in 2009 from the Fund for Change. ACCE and its organizers, including Martha, successfully built a strong community-based campaign that involved thousands of residents.
The struggle was long and complex. Many government agencies had to be mobilized, lawsuits were filed, and much was revealed about how bad the hazardous waste disposal problems really were. Eventually the state identified the unfortunate neighborhood as a cancer cluster, but the facility remained open. When the schoolyard was resurfaced, gaseous trichloroethylene solvent from contaminated soil blew into classrooms and put kids to sleep, so the nearest classrooms were shut down—but the plating company remained.
There were incremental victories: South Coast AQMD installed air monitors in the area, criminal charges were filed by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo against the company for illegal disposal of hazardous waste, and, spurred by the problems at Palace Plating, the City of L.A. established a task force that files charges against several similar facilities across L.A.
Martha and other ACCE parent members worked closely with UTLA leaders and staff at the school. “The last six years we were always, twice or three times per month, doing a community action,” said Martha, “Writing letters, demonstrations, trying to find the laws that weren’t protecting us, trying to redirect resources, trying to bring experts to do tests on people.”
In the end, Martha has gone Erin Brockovich one better, because ACCE not only rid the community of a deadly hazard, it has helped begin the process of renewal. In January 2012, about a month after Palace Plating closed, Councilwoman Jan Perry hosted the opening of 24 newly-built apartment units—part of the first phase of a large residential complex that will transform the blighted industrial strip of this tenacious neighborhood.