Los Angeles District Attorney Files 2 Dozen Counts Against Recycling Plant, Owners Allegedly Responsible for Decades of Toxic Pollution Near School in Watts Community

PC: Cedric Letsch
Via Unsplash

By Kaveh Nasseri and Audrey Sawyer

LOS ANGELES, CA – Felony charges were filed Wednesday by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office against Atlas Metals, a metal recycling plant allegedly responsible for decades of toxic pollution in the Watts community. 

DA George Gascon, alongside with members from the Healthy Families Coalition, announced his office filed two misdemeanor counts and 22 felony counts against Atlas Metals and respective owners Matthew Jacob Weisenberg and Gary Joseph Weisenberg. 

Tim Watkins, President and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee praises Gascon for the action, but added it is not enough. 

“We need a commitment from every elected official that accountability for Atlas is the beginning, not the end. The poison that Watts residents ingest every day constitutes a public health emergency, and it must be treated as such,” charged Watkins, noting Atlas Metals has been “poisoning residents and students for decades with toxic chemicals and nobody did squat about it.” 

The Coalition for Healthy Families has fought against the continued contamination of students at Jordan High School and residents of the nearby housing development with protests, media events, town halls, meetings with public officials, a “toxic tour” with enforcement agencies, and pointed letters to government officials. 

A student at Jordan High School, Genesis Cruz, stated that throughout her high school experience the learning environment was defined by violently loud noises, shaking, and noxious fumes.

Cruz added, “We became accustomed to these smells, sounds, and the fact that portions of the campus had to be closed due to lead contamination. That was our normal, but it’s not normal. They must be held accountable for jeopardizing the health and well-being of my classmates and this neighborhood.” 

In 2022, The Guardian reported students at the school are exposed to lead levels “75 times higher” than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as a hazardous threshold. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published an expose on Atlas Metals and the community led fight for justice. 

Latricia Mitchell, President of the LA Branch of the NAACP, said. “Low income communities and communities of color bear a vastly disproportionate burden of pollution and associated health risks. Today’s announcement serves as a ray of hope for all those who have been affected by the pollution and toxicity inflicted upon us. This is a crucial and overdue step towards justice, safety, and accountability for the Watts community.” 

In response to the health issues allegedly caused by Atlas activity, more than 100 Jordan High School students sent a letter to Los Angeles officials and demanded protection from the dangerous toxins on their campus.

 The letter reads, “Every day, we hear the sounds of cars being crushed, smell the fumes of metal being burned, and feel our classroom shake from the facility’s operations. At times, the noise is so loud we are unable to hear our teachers speak and classes must be paused. 

“The school closed the field down after nails and broken glass were found on our softball field. We worry that we’ll be hit with shards of scrap metal that have been known to fly over the fence when we play on the blacktop.”

A report from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) showed Atlas is in violation of multiple Health and Safety Code sections related to the illegal disposal, storage, and treatment of hazardous waste. 

The report cites materials that Atlas burns result in fugitive emissions, which put dangerous toxins in the air and onto school grounds. When it rains, runoff from Atlas comes onto school grounds, creating another environmental hazard. 

Atlas’ daily activities also result in metallic dust being propelled into the air, said community opponents, quoting teachers and others who noted, “a shiny metallic dust described as a purple shimmer…commonly observed on the school’s blacktop and playing fields, which returns within a few days after [it] rain[s].”

Multiple pieces of shrapnel have been ejected from Atlas Metals onto school grounds, threatening to injure or kill a student or staff member, said the community, adding one of these nearly hit a construction worker. 

To protect the students, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) closed a new softball field and the adjacent batting cages after spending $3 million to remediate the environmental hazards and renovate the field. Cleaning up lead from classrooms, meanwhile, came at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Court records further indicate noise from the compactor and other loud sounds cause children to “cup their ears” while at school, and school staff report “the violent slamming and crushing of metals…metallic dust on the blacktop and playing fields…large and dangerous pieces of metal… [and] incredibly loud explosions that sound like bombs…” 

Court records further reveal that, “children are oftentimes deprived of essential outdoor physical education.”

 In one case, an actual bomb was exploded at the site, projecting shrapnel onto school grounds. To keep shrapnel away from the school, Atlas erected an illegal wall said officials made from shipping containers that is unstable and potentially dangerous. 

A Supervising Structural Engineer for LAUSD said in a declaration, “The Container Wall poses a clear and present danger to the students and staff at the School… In my opinion, there is a real potential danger that this wall of stacked shipping containers is likely to tip and fall. 

“(A)nd because of the wall’s height and immediate proximity to the School, such a collapse could be catastrophic with potential serious injuries or death to occupants of the School. I am particularly concerned about electrical poles and high voltage wires in the potential pathway of the wall if it were to collapse.”

 The letter from the students closes, “We need your help, and we need to know you care and that you’re listening.”

“We were disappointed to see the charges. Atlas is actively working with the many public agencies involved and is actually moving close to a global resolution. The District Attorney declined to engage with us and chose instead to file charges.  We have not learned the details of those charges yet, but we will defend this case vigorously,” said Benjamin N. Gluck, Counsel for Atlas, Principal at Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks, Lincenberg & Rhow, P.C. 

About The Author

Audrey is a senior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science (Comparative Politics emphasis). After graduation, Audrey plans on attending graduate school and is considering becoming a public defender.

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