Kinship and Cultural Resistance to Environmental Racism in Avocado Heights, California 

On December 13, 2022, Quemetco, Inc. (also known as Ecobat), a battery smelter in City of Industry, California, agreed to pay $2.3 million in a civil settlement litigation brought on by the Department of Toxic and Substances Control (DTSC). Along with committing to infrastructural corrective measures and an acknowledgement of violations, Quemetco will distribute $1.5 million to DTSC in civil penalties and $575,000, split between two local environmental justice projects. While this is the largest settlement yet for Quemetco, it has a long history of neglect and contamination in San Gabriel Valley, California, and even globally. 

Quemetco, operating at this location since 1959 as Western Lead Producers, recovers lead from automobile batteries and other miscellaneous lead scrap materials. Currently processing over a million pounds of batteries per day (600 tons), it operates seven days per week, 24 hours per day, though the furnaces “may” operate 16-20 hours per day.1 Their chief pollutants are arsenic, lead, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and nitrogen oxides (NOx); arsenic being the highest contributor to the health, degradation, and risk of the community.2 

Quemetco traces all the way to previous and infamous environmental disasters such as The Stringfellow Acid Pits.3 This toxic waste dump located in Jurupa Valley, California became the center of national news coverage in the early 1980s, when it was considered one of the most polluted sites in California and one of the origin cases in environmental justice discourse.4 During Stringfellow’s 16 years of operation, 34 million gallons (about 128703940 L) plus of liquid waste was deposited in evaporation ponds and between 1969 and 1980 poor weather and management resulted in several spills and intentional releases of toxic chemicals into local creeks and storm channels. It was found that Quemetco dumped the tenth largest volume of toxic waste at these acid pits. From 1956-72, under the name Western Lead Producers, Quemetco dumped one million gallons of toxic waste.5 

Text from United States v. Stringfellow, 661 F. Supp. 1053, 1061, 17 ELR 21134 (C.D. Cal. 1987), 11

For decades, ambient lead measurements in neighborhoods near Quemetco reflect levels far above the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) with the maximum individual cancer risks modeled at 33.4 ppm. Reports by the DTSC in 1992 and 2006, along with an independent CAC (Clean Air Coalition) and USC Department of Environmental Health surveys conducted in 2016 show on average that most residential houses within a two-mile radius harbor around 117 ppm.6 The highest concentration in Avocado Heights was 2,427 ppm.7  

Since 1991, Quemetco and state regulatory agencies knew 8 However, no cleanup was conducted as a result. DTSC “excoriated Quemetco in a 2014 memorandum,” writing how “more often than not, Quemetco is not in compliance with the provisions in their General Permit.9 A serial violator, Quemetco has also been issued with multiple violations over the years, for problems such as illegally storing hazardous waste and delaying rebuilds of eroding (corroding) infrastructure. 

Quemetco failed to comply with various conditions including a 2005 general permit.10 Since their 2013 draft report, DTSC has not approved of the plans to monitor gas, liquid, and surface water discharge. Reporter Daniel Ross in an article on Truthout writes, “The Department of Toxic Substances Control has fallen down badly on its job of protecting the public from toxic harm.” In 2014, DTSC representatives wrote, “Quemetco appears to have been consistently discharging elevated levels of lead” into the San Jose Creek, which runs contiguous with the plant. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board issued letters in 2010 and 2015 stating they were “exceeding the benchmark values for lead, zinc, pH and specific conductance.” While soil and air pollution are serious matters, water is another level. The “EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero,” thus any violation concerning water poses an immediate and dire risk for public and environmental health.11 

Over the years, while the lead leakage diminished, emissions are regular. Arsenic, benzene, 1,3- butadiene, remain a constant. In fact, 1,3- butadiene appears to be increasing.12 Mitigation means little when it comes to contamination. With the arsenic plume of 2013 and all the other carcinogenic metals leaching into the soil, plants, animals, water, and air over the years, the damage is done. Arsenic and lead, among so many toxic metals, stay in the soil for thousands of years. 

Video of Quemetco: Courtesy of Avocado Heights Vaquer@s

Quemetco was also linked to the transportation of waste material to Exide in Vernon, California before its closure. Exide Technologies was one of two west coast battery smelters before it went bankrupt in 2020 due to the resistance efforts of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice. Quemetco consistently denies affiliation with Exide, but a DTSC 2020 lawsuit reveals an irrefutable working relationship between Quemetco and Exide over at least twenty-seven years.13 Quemetco has a history of negligent and reckless behavior in arranging and transporting caustic material with lack of regard or concern for neighborhood residents. Coincidentally, Quemetco was in favor of Exide’s closure so that it could eliminate any competition.14 

Quemetco’s footprint not only affects local communities but has state, national, and global reach. All these batteries, despite Quemetco’s claims, arrive from local as well as international sources.15 Ecobat, their parent company, has extraction operations in South Africa and South America, with distribution centers and smelters in Europe. It is important to remember that the lead is made into ingots to be sold again. Quemetco is not a public service offering responsible recycling options for batteries. It is a multinational extraction-based business designed for profit.  

After three years of relative quiet, in 2022, Quemetco emerged with an application to expand their facility by 25 percent (from 600 tons to 750 tons of lead-material per day).16 In a neighboring unincorporated town, Avocado Heights, California, a group called Avocado Heights Vaquer@s (AHV) are fighting back. Avocado Heights, with 80 percent of the population from Mexico—most from Jalisco or Zacatecas—is a unique equestrian district in San Gabriel Valley with a community of parcels between a half-acre to an acre, containing lots large enough to have seven horses each and run small agricultural business. Until recently, Avocado Heights was working class, however, given the scarcity of large parcels within Los Angeles County they are constantly at war with developers hoping to flip properties, in combination with warehouses and manufacturing developments that are zealous to convert zoning ordinances. Yet even more horrifying, due to Avocado Height’s proximity to the City of Industry, environmental degradation, pollution, and contamination has adverse effects on the community as private and public surveys prove a higher frequency of respiratory problems such as asthma and rare cancer. 

(Red indicates 90-100 percentile [highest score], orange indicates 80-90 percentile, and yellow indicates 70-80 percentile. Click on a census tract to learn more about the CalEnviroScreen scores. CalEnviroScreen scores are calculated by the scores of Pollution Burden and Population Characteristics. CalEnviroScreen provides a report with detailed description of indicators and methodology and downloadable results available at CalEnviroScreen 4.0 website.)

Founded in January of 2022, AHV became a serious force within the region, not only fostering support and fighting the expansion of Quemetco, but joining regional coalitions to protect communities of color. Following the legacies of activists in the area who shut down the Exide battery recycling plant and the La Puente Landfill, AHV, “works towards the remediation, preservation, and expansion of air, waterway, and wildlife corridors that will serve our community and future generations as a network of vibrant uninterrupted ecosystems we can access and care for as environmental stewards.” They are organizers who believe that natural environmental spaces can coexist and thrive alongside equestrians, hikers, and cyclists, as educational community spaces for recreation. They are also members of the CAC and participate in other regional coalitions who are dedicated to shutting down Quemetco and fighting developers that want to convert agricultural and equestrian zoned parcels into manufacturing warehouses, reclamation facilities, and industries. 

One of the founding members of AHV joins Boom California to discuss the connections between cultural sovereignty, environmental racism, and activism. As with many disruptive environmental justice efforts across California, AHV members face serious legal and personal threats, thus the interviewee will remain anonymous.  


Boom 

Can you tell us a bit about Avocado Heights and what makes it unique? 

AHV 

What makes Avocado Heights unique is its rural aspect, and that it has an equestrian culture. It is past East LA, in the San Gabriel Valley, not too far from Los Angeles, in a suburban and industrial area. Even though we’re surrounded by lots of factories, the neighborhood is small and feels tightknit. You’ll walk your dog or go on a stroll and see people on horses, people walking ponies, or training little foals. There are even goats and chickens and roosters here. It’s beautiful, in that sense. 

Close ties between neighbors and friends make this the closest thing to a pueblo I’ve experienced. Each day I am reminded why spaces like this are important. These are spaces reminiscent of the rancherias in rural Mexico where a freshly groomed horse and polished leather saddle still carry cachet among locals–where a rag tag group of teens on borrowed horses meander aimlessly stringing along stories to keep entertained. 

Strolls in Avocado Heights become visits, usually there’s an invitation to share a beer and catch up. It’s the place where a lazy Sunday quickly transforms into an impromptu outdoor picnic with friends who might be fully engrossed in a volleyball tournament or karaoke duel. The park is our zocalo (the Jardin minus the kiosk). Our equestrian arena with white picket fence attracts throngs of spectators. Kids battle it out shooting hoops while an elotero takes a moment to rest before making another round past the baseball diamond which also doubles as a soccer field.  

Kelly, Howard D, “Avocado Heights, 4th Avenue and 3rd Avenue, looking northeast,” 1955, Los Angeles Public Library

Young couples walk towards the edge of the park before lounging for hours on the sloped hill. A group of friends enjoy mariscos from the lonchera fresh off a shift at one of the thousands of warehouses in the City of Industry and ruminate on the adventures that await them. Further off in the distance, admirers narrate which horses they like best and make note of which maneuvers impress them most. Nearby, a washed-up gangster lays flat across the grass and he’s coming off a bender. You recognize him a little, he was someone you went to middle school with. 

Sometimes you’ll hear folks refer to this place as North Whittier, Bassett, or La Puente. But for most of us, we prefer Avocado Heights after the massive avocado orchards that were first planted in the 1910’s when this tract was being billed to investors from Los Angeles as a lucrative investment. The area was called la Fortuna Farms, hoping this would generate interest and entice buyers. The land was later acquired by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, a creditor who acquired the land as collateral after the markets crashed in the 1870s which drove previous landowning family patriarch William Workman to commit suicide.  

Boom  

Can you explain further what it means to be an equestrian district in Avocado Heights? 

AHV 

There are two parks in the community. One gets more use because of the skatepark. But the other park, Avocado Heights Park, is also a central hub, where all the vaqueros and vaqueras congregate. And on the weekends, or around special holidays, you’ll hear music. Hundreds of people will gather. You see people selling various products specific to the region. So, I think the equestrian aspect, it’s important for the community and the environment as well.  

The park is especially nice during the subtle chill of pre-Santa Ana winds, where you might find a horse steaming from its sweat as the charros lasso large circles above and around them. They intricately weave ritualistic patterns with the riata while a team of escaramuzas inside the round metal pen gallop diagonally towards each other in a circle before executing a full 180 and dispersing in such quick succession that the floating dust still hangs along the wind.  

We’re near the Avocado Heights equestrian trail which connects with the San Jose Creek trail. We could connect on horseback all the way to Azusa, down towards the beach, or hit the Puente Hills and ride towards Chino Hills. A lot of vaqueros and vaqueras will go horse-riding throughout the week, but especially on the weekends, they’ll do the trail rides. It’s so important that we’re mindful and conscious of the environment because it directly impacts everyone in the community. At this juncture, we’re interested in expanding public access to wildlife corridors or greenways, improving multi-use trails in our communities, and shaping development projects to offset adverse environmental impacts and to work towards a more resilient ecological system locally. 

(Yellow line indicates LA County DPR Trails. Click on the trail to discover information on trail use and access)

Boom  

You have illustrated how the story of avocado heights is a story of land. Between today and the evolution of Avocado Heights into Anglo-American settler history, rampant development and the encroachment of manufacturing facilities advanced in the 1970s, a period in which Avocado Heights increasingly faced serious threats to its cultural sovereignty and environment. In 1982, Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” to signify the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities. Do you think this is an appropriate term to apply to Avocado Heights and if so, would you elaborate on the scale of the issue? 

AHV 

I think that is an appropriate term. This past winter, a developer was in escrow with a private Christian university that goes by the name: Latin American Bible Institute. They were trying to sell to this developer who was going to build storage units or an industrial manufacturing warehouse. We got activated and we came together. We were loud. We’re like, “No! We will not be okay with this!” It’s something that has affected the community and continues to do so.  

Ever since we were children, nearby, there was a the La Puente Landfill. Avocado Heights is really close to City of Industry, La Puente, Bassett and North Whittier, which allowed for established coalitions, like Clean Air Coalition, to help put a stop to the landfill which significantly polluted the environment. People, members of that organization, also fought against the Athens Waste Facility: A big trash processing company near Valley Blvd. Because of them, and the City of Industry, there are a lot of big rigs. There is a lot of traffic and congestion in that area. The City of Industry has a plastic factory and companies like Goya, which you can smell, and which populate the neighborhood with their big rigs. Think of all the carbon and air pollution they emit. Then you consider the ambient, heavy metals they produce. These metals leech into our waterways and bed into our soil. This water is for drinking. Plants and animals depend on this water. The metals remain in the soil for thousands of years. All this industry, and the freeways, grip the borders of our unincorporated town. 

But our current and greatest antagonist, in my opinion, is Quemetco, which now goes by Ecobat. Quemetco has been around for decades operating as an extraordinarily reckless toxic battery recycling facility. Quemetco’s contaminating our air, soil, our water, releasing harmful chemicals into our environment, such as lead, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, and other heavy metals. But it’s a powerful multinational corperation with millions, if not billions of dollars, so they’re very good at covering their tracks or paying fees. They’ve made it abundantly clear that they don’t really care about our community. Why would they? They’re profiting, they have their business, and they don’t have our best interests at heart. Aside from a few postcards in the mail, they reach out to other commercial zones, like Hope City, to buffer their optics.  

They’re not going to do things like comprehensive soil sampling, which is why we must work hard, even though we’re a small collective. I’d say everyone is really dedicated, and we’re working with other people who are like-minded. We work with Clean Air Coalition or Active SGV or other environmental organizations that care about public health and want to fight against environmental racism. 

Boom 

Considering that you participate in several local coalitions, what do you think defines Avocado Heights Vaquer@s, differentiates it from these other groups? 

AHV 

A few things. Number one, in Avocado Heights, there hadn’t been organizing to the degree in which we do it. There are a lot of environmental and social justice groups in the San Gabriel Valley. There are some in La Puente and even Hacienda Heights. I don’t want to generalize, but some of them are very hierarchical or they’re not focused on meeting the needs of their community. There hadn’t been an organization in Avocado Heights, except the Clean Air Coalition. But that still wasn’t entirely representative of Avocado Heights itself, given that their base was in North Whittier. Their aims, while aligned with ours in many ways, differ. 

What makes Avocado Heights Vaquer@s different is the focus on family, or kinship, in our neighborhood. That’s what remains so special about our community. We help each other out. You see a neighbor in need, and you come. I was struggling another day with a horse, freaking out because the horse was stuck, and someone nearby came and helped me out. You see that here. In certain other neighborhoods you don’t. There’s a genuine authenticity, and I think that is part of it too, that cultural aspect where people from small little communities in Mexico bring these common traditions and customs to Avocado Heights. It’s a place where people who are from Mexico can come and feel comfortable. They’re like, “Oh, yeah, hey, this is how we do it in my pueblo!” 

Our family helps us out. If we are throwing an event, they’ll be there as much as possible, and they will support us. And I think that’s very special. We’re not a nonprofit. We don’t get money. We don’t have all the resources that a lot of other organizations have.  

Courtesy of Avocado Heights Vaquer@s

Boom  

Do you think there’s some part of the vaquero and vaquera culture that allows you to be unique stewards of the land, one that offers a new approach to environmentalism? 

AHV 

Organizing should also be fun as well as rigorous because otherwise people burn out and can get tired of always having to protest. Aside from that, I think nowadays, because of global warming and activism and social media, there’s this consciousness of: “We got to protect our environment. We got to get involved.” I hate to use the word trendy, it’s not a good word to use to describe caring about the environment, but in a way, it is. Certain people have cared about the environment for many, many generations before it’s become a hashtag. 

And part of it starts with our family, starts with your ancestors, starts with your traditions. I know when I go to indigenous spaces such as powwows, there’s an acknowledgment of Mother Earth. When it comes to land, our practice is to not take more than what you need. The honorable harvest: if you take something you give back. You use every single part of the animal because nothing should be wasted. In parts of Mexico, where my mom’s from, it’s that same kind of consciousness. It’s not like the way we think of environmentalism now. We are really paying attention to the stories, anecdotes, and wisdom of my mom’s teaching, or my grandmother’s. They were always mindful of the land. It was natural. That’s how they grew up.  

Boom  

Are there certain goals that AHV are attempting to achieve in the near or distant future, or is it more a processual, reactive type of process?  

AHV 

I think it’s both. Part of it is that we absorb ourselves in projects that really call our attention or that we see commonalities. We consider whether it is an issue that a neighboring community resonates with us. We’ve talked to people who’ve done soil sampling before—such as with East Yards and their fight to shutdown Exide—people who already have this wisdom. And we’ve also worked with the Coalition Against Lennar fighting the developer mentioned before, because it’s about public land. They’re taking away land to build condos. 

We are a little reactionary, but in the long term we are just making sure that we protect our community, protect our neighborhood. We want to see more green spaces and spaces that are good for our environment, youth, and animals. 

  Ultimately, and I know this is going to be hard, but we need to shut down Quemetco. It’s sad that it’s still around and it’s so harmful, and if it’s still there, it’s going to continue polluting our community even if they say, “Oh, we’re adding this filter… or over-monitoring… or a little lead is not that bad…” NO! Any quantity of lead is too much. Our health is in serious jeopardy because of it. But there are other factories involved. It’s all connected. I think Quemetco is a big one that we obviously must address, but there are other factories. 

Boom  

Lastly, is this an open group? If not, what are the ways that people (who are interested or believe in this type of cause or form of justice) within the area can either join, participate, or support the organization? 

AHV 

Yeah, so that’s interesting. It’s something that we reflected on in our last meeting. At first, I think we always saw ourselves as an open group. We don’t want to be exclusive. But we had to reevaluate. Of course, it’s still open in the sense that we want to have support our actions and public-facing events. We need this form of support and solidarity. That’s the crucial thing about doing coalition-building. Through social media networking nowadays or supporting other groups, they’ll turn around and support you.  

  There’s nothing wrong with just being a little bit smaller, too. We don’t need a lot of people. The agency and identity, and even sovereignty, of our group is important to remember and value as well. The people brought in from the outside can jeopardize the core and spirit of the group. If someone is really interested, of course, we’re not going to turn them away. But I think what’s important is just having people who you can rely on and trust because it’s not a small endeavor going against big companies and companies that have lots of well-paid lawyers. There is also a community, real people, and specific culture at stake. It’s kind of scary because we have to be careful as much as we have to fight. 


SOURCES

1) South Coast AQMD, “Quemetco,” date accessed January 18, 2023,
http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/quemetco

2) Ibid & Lisa Fuhrmann, Quemetco’s Lead Legacy: A Cycle of Injustice and Contamination in
Southern California, EarthJustice, January 27, 2021

3) George Ramos, “Report Urges Firms Be Held Liable for Cleaning Stringfellow Acid Pits,” Los
Angeles Times, September 24, 1986

4) Tracy E. Perkins, The Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental
Justice Activism, (Oakland, California: UC Press, 2022), 26.

5) United States v. Stringfellow, 661 F. Supp. 1053, 1061, 17 ELR 21134 (C.D. Cal. 1987), 11

6) Jill Johnston, Soil Sampling Data near Quemetco Battery Recycling, City of Industry, CA, USC
Department of Preventive Medicine, July 2016

7) Scott M. Lesch, et al, Final Report: Statistical Modeling and Analysis Results for Topsoil Lead
Contamination Study (Quemetco Project), University of California Riverside, January 28, 2006
& Nancy L. C. Steele, Off-site Sampling Report in the Vicinity of Quemetco Inc. December 1991
& Jill Johnston, Soil Sampling Data near Quemetco Battery Recycling, City of Industry, CA,
USC Department of Preventive Medicine, July 2016

8) Nancy L. C. Steele, Off-site Sampling Report in the Vicinity of Quemetco Inc. December 1991

9) Daniel Ross, “Lax Regulatory Enforcement Leaves Thousands at Risk of Lead Poisoning in
California,” Truthout, November 22, 2015

10) Ibid

11) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lead in Drinking Water,”
https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/sources/water.htm#:~:text=EPA%20has%20set%20th
e%20maximum,in%20the%20body%20over%20time, accessed January 18, 2023

12) South Coast AQMD, “Quemetco,” date accessed January 18, 2023,
http://www.aqmd.gov/home/news-events/community-investigations/quemetco

13) Cal. Dep’t of Toxic Substances Control v. NL Indus., 2:20-11293-SVW (JPR) (C.D. Cal. Jan.
31, 2022)

14) mark! Lopez of East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice in a talk given to local
organizers in San Gabriel Valley, February 2012

15) Ecobat, “Our Business,” Ecobat.com, https://ecobat.com/our-business/, accessed January 18,
2023

16) Fuhrmann, Quemetco’s Lead, January 27, 2021

[For full disclosure, previous editors and SEMAP co-directors Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza as well as graduate editorial assistant Daniel Talamantes have a continuing relationship with AHV and support their efforts as well as attend their events.] 

Posted by Boom California