Environmental Tag Team: The Unique Partnership of Paramount and the Air Quality Management District
Chris Callard is public information officer for the City of Paramount and can be reached at email@example.com.
On a December morning in 2016, the City of Paramount received a phone call from the local daily newspaper. A reporter was asking for comments on the extremely high levels of hexavalent chromium (Cr6+), a carcinogen and toxin, found in the air of the town’s industrial neighborhood. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) had discovered the abnormal concentration of the toxic metal and issued a press release; however, the city was unaware of the situation.
State law established the AQMD in 1975 to regulate local air quality related to emissions from businesses. According to that same legislation, cities could not enforce air quality laws.
“This was a significant public health problem that caught us by surprise,” said Paramount Mayor Tom Hansen. “We needed to learn quickly about the science, regulations and enforcement. We had to find out which agencies held what responsibilities and how the city could help.”
Teamwork in the Face of Challenges
Like many nearby cities, Paramount lived with a legacy of mid-century county planning that haphazardly created an industrial belt along the Los Angeles River when the area was open agricultural land mixed with scant residential development.
Now, with air quality identified as a major problem, Paramount was determined not to become another statistic of southeast Los Angeles County environmental injustice.
350 Times the Normal Level
AQMD had been monitoring certain metal-related businesses in Paramount for odors and other complaints, but alarmingly high levels of Cr6+ were completely unexpected. Two air sampler machines identified the pollutant at 350 times the normal level on three separate days; the measurements eventually fell well below those numbers but were still often above common readings for the region.
AQMD suggested that the continuing levels did not pose an “immediate” danger to residents. Still, with appropriate vigilance, it began a public information campaign that included press contacts and town hall meetings.
“There was a lot of information coming out, quickly,” said Council Member Peggy Lemons, who was mayor at the time. “Plus there were sensational stories in the newspapers and jargon from the scientists that was confusing to a lot of us. Things were very bumpy.”
Many residents, of course, became worried. Some were outspoken at city council meetings and on social media. They could not understand why the city had allowed this to occur, why something hadn’t been done years ago about these polluters and why they were allowed to stay in business.
“This concerned and affected us all,” said Lemons. “Health and safety are always our top priorities. I don’t know any city that keeps tabs on air pollution; we’ve always relied on AQMD. But now we were involved, and it was extremely important that we received — and understood — all the facts and related them in digestible ways to our residents.”
A Varied Strategy
Paramount initiated a three-pronged approach: Inform the public, learn the science and reduce future risk.
“As soon as this came to our attention, we went into outreach mode,” said City Manager John Moreno. “We placed a story on the city’s homepage with a link to the AQMD website that listed everything the agency was doing in Paramount. Posts on the city’s social media pages soon followed.”
The speed at which events unfolded created uncertainty and tension between the city and AQMD, but both Paramount and AQMD knew the process would be lengthy and communication needed to be improved. With a focus on directness, staff members from both entities began holding weekly conference calls while the city manager and AQMD’s chief executive personally updated each other daily.
AQMD launched an extensive investigation to find the source of Cr6+, and Paramount wanted to be an active player in the process.
“We brainstormed all sorts of things,” said Moreno. “We offered to pay for some of AQMD’s staff time to gain quicker sampling results and to pay for sheriff’s deputies if warrants were needed during investigations. We gave them carte blanche access to Public Works Department equipment to help power and set up the air samplers, if needed, and we opened all of our facilities and communication portals to spread the word about public meetings and investigation results.”
These measures also included:
- Supplying the names of all metal-related companies in town according to the city’s business license database;
- Providing city code enforcement officers to help AQMD investigators conduct canvass-inspections throughout the city’s industrial zones;
- Speeding the installation of additional air samplers by waiving encroachment permits and contacting Southern California Edison for use of their power poles;
- Paying for a Spanish translation during the weekly conference calls AQMD held to inform the public; and
- Offering the use of city facilities for AQMD field staff working round the clock in Paramount.
In addition, the city took extensive strides on its own, hiring consultants to translate monitoring results and other scientific data, contacting legislative representatives for counsel, addressing the AQMD board and the county board of supervisors and sending letters to targeted companies asking for their help in resolving the problem.
“We dedicated an unprecedented amount of time, energy and resources to meet this head on,” said Hansen. “We eventually interacted with local, county and state agencies, residents, environmental activists, businesses, clergy and more.”
More substantial moves followed. To allow time for reflection and research, Paramount quickly enacted an 18-month moratorium on all new metal businesses opening in town and any expansion of existing ones. And to enhance transparency, the city built a stand-alone environmental website, paramountenvironment.org, offering data, articles and links.
For long-term air monitoring, the city allocated $50,000 to purchase its own air samplers, which were placed and read by AQMD.
Paramount formed the City Council Air Quality Subcommittee, a public working group made up of elected officials, residents, school district representatives and city staff that met monthly for a year. The committee’s efforts resulted in a significant and comprehensive reevaluation of the municipal zoning code for the industrial area to ensure future environmental protections.
Alongside state and county health officials, soil testing was performed in neighborhoods close to the industrial sites, and the city accelerated the testing of its water beyond state and federal requirements to assure residents that the supply was clean and safe.
While all of these strategies were developed and implemented over a year and a half, sources of Cr6+ were discovered, the companies responsible were policed by AQMD, the air was constantly monitored with fluctuating results, and battles still raged over who should have done what and when.
A Turning Point
Progress, however, was noted in June 2018 when AQMD reported, “It is evident that ambient Cr6+ concentrations at all locations have declined substantially over time … Cr6+ levels in the City of Paramount have been declining steadily and are now within the typical levels.”
Paramount’s journey with eco-regulators related to air, water and soil may have broken new ground when it comes to interagency cooperation amid environmental challenges.
AQMD Executive Director Wayne Nastri says, “The success and the aggressive nature that we’ve had working in Paramount really set the bar … this is something that can be done throughout the state, and I’m sure this is something that will be done throughout the nation in the years to come.”
Acknowledgment of the city’s determination and collaborations arrived in late 2018, when AQMD honored Paramount with its Model Community Achievement Award, which identifies outstanding clean air contributions to the health of communities and their economies.
“This was a great show of support that our approach to protecting our residents was positive and appropriate,” says Hansen. “And it meant a lot that our main partner in dealing with this, AQMD, saw that our actions were worthy of recognition.”
A Watchful Future
“The work isn’t finished,” Hansen says. “While goals have been met, the awareness will never leave us. But we have turned a corner.”
“The past two and a half years have been a time of education,” says Lemons. “While hexavalent chromium has been a menace in our industrial sector, local rules have been adopted, controls have been developed and monitoring is in place.”
Hansen says, “It’s always about being on the same page to find solutions and devise innovative responses, and then sharing the information openly. And it always will be.”