Santa Ana’s industrial water pollution issue is once again spilling into the spotlight, as sheet metal workers take action against their factory over safety complaints and water contamination that’s exceeded allowable levels under the Clean Water Act for years.
Pollution levels in stormwater discharged by the Kingspan Light + Air factory in Santa Ana’s Delhi Neighborhood have gone beyond permitted amounts every year since 2018, according to documents the company filed with regulators in May.
Yet employee whistleblowers say Kingspan has not taken certain actions to fix the problem and hasn’t followed its own stormwater pollution prevention plan, which was required of the company as a condition for obtaining its state permit.
The company entered a legal settlement over largely the same issue in April this year, with the Orange County Coastkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that sued the company in 2020, in part due to the levels of materials like zinc and aluminum in contaminated water.
The complaints come before city council members are expected to address related environmental justice issues at their Dec. 7 meeting, when they consider revising Santa Ana’s foundational planning document for the first time in decades.
The struggle around this one factory is fueling serious and longstanding concerns over Santa Ana’s industrial core and its businesses’ quality of life impacts to residents over the years.
The sheet metal factory directly discharges the polluted stormwater into the Santa Ana Delhi Channel and is subject to regulations protecting nearby watersheds.
In a Tuesday written response to questions, Kingspan’s Vice President of Operations Ron Caudill said the company is “committed to following all rules and regulations and pride ourselves on our safety record. If improvements need to be made, we make them.”
He added that Kingspan “is committing nearly $1 million to capture, clean and treat all rainwater that lands on our property.”
Inside the sheet metal factory, workers who weld, paint, and assemble building materials have their own workplace safety complaints, and are speaking out with the help of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART).
The union and six factory employees filed a safety complaint with the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA) in October, alleging they notified Kingspan of poor indoor air quality several times, but the company never made improvements.
Other safety complaints include lack of ventilation, dust buildup, unsafe exposure to hazardous materials and equipment malfunctions.
On three separate workdays in August, employees outfitted themselves with personal air pollution monitoring devices called AtmoTube Pros, as well as GPS locators, to measure indoor concentrations of harmful particulates during the workday.
Air pollution researcher Dr. Shahir Masri, from the University of California, Irvine, used the data from those devices for a report his consulting firm published in October.
The report found that harmful particulate concentrations inside Kingspan’s facility were on average 25% higher than the maximum concentration measured in Santa Ana during major wildfires in northern California last year.
Caudill, of Kingspan, dismissed the findings of that report because its “conclusions were based on exposure standards set for outdoor situations as opposed to indoors in a manufacturing facility such as ours.”
Caudill said Kingspan paid for its own air quality testing, which “found the air inside our facility is not dangerous.”
Though factory workers didn’t stop there.
Seeking another opportunity for state regulators to intervene, they filed a California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) whistleblower complaint four days after the CalOSHA complaint, claiming Kingspan failed to address the sources of water contamination from the facility.
In that complaint, whistleblowers alleged Kingspan did not cover dumpsters — which they say was identified in the company’s stormwater pollution prevention plan as a potential source of contamination — and used a leaf blower to move dust and debris around, rather than cleaning it up with an industrial vacuum.
The complaint also alleges the company omitted potential sources of pollution, such as fiberboard cuttings, and did not identify all materials handled by the facility in its prevention plan.
Meanwhile, elected officials are expected this month to start tackling the concept of environmental justice through an urban planning lens.
The Santa Ana City Council will revisit its cornerstone planning document — the General Plan — for the first time in years at council members’ Dec. 7 meeting, said Mayor Vicente Sarmiento in a Tuesday phone interview.
The document is seen as a way to address environmental issues like water pollution as well as disparities in the quality of life impacts to the city’s poorer, often immigrant residents.
A soil lead crisis studied by the University of California, Irvine, for example, is feared to threaten residents’ health, namely children.
Though Sarmiento said the General Plan is just one step in tackling the city’s environmental issues, adding the city’s zoning document “creates the enforcement arm” for any policies or goals set by the General Plan.
“It’s a two-part process,” he said.
Sarmiento said if the pollution levels reported out of Kingspan “aren’t addressed, they could have impacts to … air quality, water quality, soil contamination.”
“With communities like Santa Ana, who have outdated general plans,” Sarmiento said, the goal “is to create a document going forward to create buffers between sensitive (communities), residential units, parks, and schools from … industrial uses and that’s really at the crux of what’s happening — we don’t have a document that creates those separations.”
Kingspan workers say they also want a fair process for deciding whether to join a union, alleging their employer company has maneuvered to discourage the dialogue by handing out leaflets to workers about the cons of unionizing.
“We respect our employees’ rights to decide for themselves if they want to join, or not join a union,” wrote Ron Caudill, vice president of operations for Kingspan in a Tuesday email.
He added: “We encourage our employees to get all the facts before making a decision and we will provide them factual information so they can make an informed decision on what’s the best choice.”
The worker complaints come after the Orange County Coastkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, sued Kingspan last year over its high water contamination levels.
The lawsuit led to an agreement by the company allowing Coastkeeper to inspect documents and visit the facility site two times a year, said Sarah Spinuzzi, attorney for the environmental group.
“We entered into [an agreement] which … allows us to inspect documents in the (Kingspan) facility,” Spinuzzi said, and “requires them to embark on best management practices to prevent pollution in the future.”
“Our goal in a consent decree is to put the facility on a path toward progress, toward improving the quality of industrial stormwater runoff,” Spinuzzi said.
Sarmiento said the solution to the industrial corridor’s health hazards on surrounding communities “lies in the permitting process.”
“By requiring conditional use permits for these facilities, rather than having them approved by-right, you’d have more scrutiny on businesses being introduced into the community and can ask for more strict conditions that go more in-depth,” Sarmiento said.
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