Victor Valladares can tell the time of day when he's at his apartment in Huntington Beach's Oak View barrio just by smelling the air.
“Around this time, like, 10 to 11 in the morning, it begins to smell like sulfur,” Valladares says. “Earlier, it smells like rotten vegetables. At random times, it smells like a combination of Pine Sol and vinegar. And at 2 in the morning, it's just like a dead body.”
Slim, loud, wearing a Packers hat and sporting the names of his two boys on his tatted forearms, the 29-year-old is standing across the street from the stench's culprit: Rainbow Environmental Services, a 17-acre garbage facility that has exponentially expanded in its nearly 50 years despite facing an elementary school and preschool with more than 1,000 students and being downwind from Oak View, a neighborhood of more than 10,000 people where Valladares has lived his entire life.
An aroma of rotten eggs mixed with gym socks suddenly wafts through. “This is a good day!” says Gina Clayton-Tarvin, board president of the Ocean View School District (OVSD), which covers Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Midway City and Westminster. “This is beautiful! The stench is not so bad! You came on a day when you're not going to gag!”
The two walk alongside Nichols Lane, the street that separates Rainbow from Oak View Elementary, which Clayton-Tarvin represents. On Rainbow's side, a company executive preps for a photo shoot, assistants shifting light reflectors to capture her best side. Its sidewalk is clean, its southbound section of Nichols smooth as a speedway.
“Look at it!” Clayton-Tarvin shouts over the rumble of a diesel engine going northbound. “It's beautiful! And now look at our side of the street!”
As if on cue, the 18-wheeler swerves to avoid all the ruts on Oak View's section. It joins a parade of idling garbage trucks, big rigs hauling containers of trash, pickups with payloads spilling trash–vehicles of almost every kind, really, all trash-filled–lining up to enter Rainbow, just a stone's throw from the preschool's jungle gym. Above, a flock of seagulls circle intently, their bird droppings on Oak View Preschool's parking lot a testament to the feast that awaits them.
“I remember in fifth grade at Oak View, we had a game,” Valladares cracks. “Dodge the Bird Shit.”
The two stare at Rainbow a while, then walk back to the preschool–there's work to do. Valladares is part of a new generation of residents in Oak View–universally called the Slater Slums by the rest of Orange County–tired of serving as Huntington Beach's de facto dump. He and his friends are rallying neighbors to take on the reeking colossus to the west, a powerhouse that has dominated politics and civic life in Surf City for decades even as it has been dinged for multiple notices of violation. Clayton-Tarvin, meanwhile, is using her power as an elected official to launch legal actions against Rainbow, alleging its fumes are making Oak View's students, teachers and residents sick and demanding they do something about it. Critics call the two crazy, accuse the trustee of using Mexicans to further her political agenda, and say the young activists are useful pendejos to gabachos who want to upset the status quo.
But such haters don't phase Clayton-Tarvin and Valladares. “Would they do this in my neighborhood?” Clayton-Tarvin asks. She mouths “¡Hola!” to moms walking with their kids. “It's environmental abuse to our students and staff and their parents. Kids can't play outside in our playgrounds because it's right across the street. Their trash drifts into our school and neighborhoods.”
“A lot of people are afraid in Oak View,” Valladares says, handing out fliers teaching people how to lodge complaints against Rainbow. “I want to tell them, 'Don't trip. We're here.'”
When Oak View Elementary opened its doors in 1967, Rainbow Disposal already stood kitty-corner across Nichols, on a plot just smaller than 2 acres. Founded a decade earlier, the firm hadn't yet turned into the giant it is today: one of the top 10 employers in the city and financial donor to five of the seven current Huntington Beach City Council members, three of five Huntington Beach Union High School District trustees, Assemblymembers Travis Allen and Matt Harper, and numerous Huntington Beach nonprofits. In 2014, Phoenix, Arizona-based Republic Services, one of the largest trash companies in the country, bought out Rainbow for $112 million in cash but allowed it to keep its name.
Hand in hand, the Oak View neighborhood and Rainbow grew. In 1981, the company received a solid-waste-facility permit that allowed it to operate on 4.65 acres, open a recycling facility and have the capacity to process 800 tons of garbage per day. Conditions were placed to mitigate any odors because the heart of Oak View was less than half a mile away, and some apartments stood within 500 feet of Rainbow–but city documents don't mention protecting the children of Oak View Elementary.
By this point, the neighborhood was turning into a Latino enclave, a city block of dense apartments, immigrants and poverty that the rest of the city tried to ignore–especially if it got in Rainbow's way. A 1984 Orange County Register article said the Huntington Beach City Council denied a request by the public works department to examine “the effects of [Rainbow's growth] on Huntington Beach.” In 1990, during an Office of Zoning Administration hearing held to consider Rainbow's request to push its capacity to 2,000 tons of trash per day and spill over to a lot directly across from Oak View Elementary, meeting minutes show, a resident said he had lodged six complaints in the prior three months and that “he was concerned that with an increase in tonnage, the odor from the facility would worsen and his property would be worth less.” Company chairman Ron Shenkman responded that Rainbow “had not received any complaints from the school or any other neighbors regarding odors from the facility.”
By 2004, Rainbow had spread to cover 12 acres, encompassing the length of the school, and now had a materials-recovery facility and the capability to handle 2,800 tons of waste per day. But complaints were piling up. Records obtained by the Weekly showed that Rainbow had amassed 19 notices of violation, most classified as nuisance incidents because of odor issues, with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) since 1992–by far the most of any trash company in Orange County during that time. In October 2004, a parent at Liberty Christian School, located up the street from Rainbow, wrote to OC health officials about Rainbow's rankness. “I notice it almost every day,” the woman wrote in an email. “The teachers at the preschool, which is located on the elementary-school property, said that they even keep the children indoors on some days because the smell is so bad. I feel like this just cannot be right.”
“Let whoever has Rainbow know about the odor complaints,” a county health supervisor wrote to an engineer in an internal memo obtained by the Weekly. “It sounds like they may have to beef up their odor control measures. We've had neighbor complaints before.”
And still, Rainbow grew. In 2008, when it asked Huntington Beach to let it construct new buildings so it could eventually process a maximum of 4,000 tons of garbage per day, a required air-quality-assessment report (AQAR) actually stated any new odors created by the expansion would “be intermittent and very faint and will likely disperse before being received by adjacent school children and residences.” The company also claimed it couldn't find any evidence of complaints lodged against the company with the AQMD in the previous five years, not bothering to disclose a meeting with Oak View Elementary officials the previous year about what internal documents described as “increased phone calls being received from the school regarding odors.”
In response to the AQAR, the AQMD wrote it had received 78 odor and dust complaints against Rainbow from 2006 to 2008, leading to a notice of violation for “creating a public nuisance from odor.” And a Dec. 19, 2008, letter by the California Integrated Waste Management Board dinged the city's planning department for not consulting with school officials about the project's impact.
Nevertheless, Rainbow got its way. In 2009, the Huntington Beach Planning Commission approved Rainbow's request. A staff report concluded that allowing 4,000 daily tons “will not be detrimental to the general welfare of persons working or residing in the vicinity or detrimental to the value of the property and improvements in the neighborhood.” Minutes of the March 10 meeting show that commission chairwoman Elizabeth Shier Burnett felt Rainbow was an “exceptional organization, with an impressive record of service to the community,” and that commissioner Barbara Delgleize–now a Huntington Beach councilwoman who accepted nearly $1,000 in campaign contributions from Rainbow consultants and executives in the 2014 election–gushed that the project was “visionary.” Meanwhile, the principal of Liberty Christian School, along with the then-president and superintendent of the OVSD spoke in favor of Rainbow's proposal, with Superintendent Alan Rasmussen proclaiming, “The project will have a positive impact on the neighborhood.”
Four years later, a different OVSD leadership wouldn't be as welcoming.
With her blond hair; Jackie O sunglasses; and propensity for glittery fingernails, large necklaces and platform wooden heels, Clayton-Tarvin seems more Huntington Harbour housewife than rabble-rousing trustee. But there she is on a weekday morning, handing out free lunches to students in a grassy area of Oak View Preschool. A faint scent makes kids wrinkle their noses.
“Someone call the AQMD,” Clayton-Tarvin says to no one in particular. “We don't want our kids to be smelling trash.
“For too many years, we had a detached school board,” she continues. “They didn't know what was going on with their constituents. Everyone counts. The students and parents are voiceless because they're voteless. Just because you don't make a million dollars doesn't mean you shouldn't count. They've been disenfranchised.”
Clayton-Tarvin's frank talk and willingness to fight have earned her plenty of critics in Huntington Beach. On the city's notoriously bare-knuckles Facebook forums, haters accuse her of messing with a good local business and exploiting children and have called her a “psycho biatch [sic],” “unbalanced” and a “shit stirrer,” having the “ethics of a cockroach.”
They also maintain Clayton-Tarvin is using the shield of environmental justice to mask a bigger issue: OVSD is in financial trouble. The 2014 discovery of asbestos in three schools–including Oak View Elementary–forced their temporary closure and the bussing of children to schools as far away as Buena Park.
“It's not a tort lawsuit; it's a nuisance one,” Clayton-Tarvin says, when asked about another allegation–that OVSD is suing Rainbow for money to save itself. “They've tried to discredit my helping the community. Because I don't tow the conservative, corporate Huntington Beach party line, they'd like to make me persona non grata.”
But in Oak View, she has a loyal fan base.
“I love her,” says Roger Lara-Renteria. The 27-year-old first met Clayton-Tarvin during an argument in a parking lot. He had just led a walkout of parents from the Oak View Community Center during an OVSD community forum explaining the asbestos controversy. The lifelong Oak View resident accused her of being an uncaring politician; she challenged him to do something with his anger. Lara-Renteria helped organize a Cinco de Mayo rally called “Put a Lid On It!” at Oak View Elementary, which his sister attends, that drew hundreds of students and teachers.
“¡Oh, la señora Gina es buena!” said a woman watching her children play at Oak View Center Park, as her friends nodded in agreement. “She cares for our children, which you don't see too many politicians do.”
“Gina lit the flame,” says Valladares, who's Lara-Renteria's cousin. “She's human and down-to-earth. And she's not afraid to get her hands dirty.”
Clayton-Tarvin has lived in Huntington Beach since 1989, teaches for the sixth-grade GATE program in Cerritos and is the rep for her school's teachers' union. She ran for a seat on the OVSD board in 2012 at the urging of OVSD teachers. And as she took office, the San Diego native almost immediately walked into a showdown with Rainbow.
In 2004, Rainbow had purchased 5 acres directly bordering Oak View Elementary known as Historic Wintersburg, site of a long-standing Japanese-American community. The company sat on the property until 2013, when Clayton-Tarvin discovered that Rainbow was going to ask the City Council to change the zoning on the parcel to commercial and industrial.
Before then, Rainbow's relationship with Oak View was largely cordial, smell complaints aside. One year, students even got to see a show-and-tell on campus with a hawk hired to keep seagulls away. “I knew Rainbow was there next to Oak View, but I never knew how bad it was,” Clayton-Tarvin admits.
That changed a few months into her first year in office, when then-OVSD Superintendent Gustavo Balderas was asked by school janitors to go onto the roof of Oak View. Before them were piles of feathers, discarded chicken bones and so much seagull feces that it had begun to leak into classrooms. “It was absolutely disgusting,” Clayton-Tarvin recalls. “I had no damn clue what was going on. That's when I knew we had to do something.”
In October 2013, more than 700 residents signed a petition opposing the rezoning of Historic Wintersburg, arguing it “would only add to the problems of dust, odors, noise and seagull infestations” caused by Rainbow. Hundreds of teachers, parents and schoolchildren attended the Huntington Beach City Council meeting that decided Wintersburg's fate. “The conditions my students and staff live with daily are nothing less than terrible,” said Oak View Elementary's then-principal Laura Dale-Pash. “No child deserves to play in such conditions.”
The council voted 4-3 to side with Rainbow.
“That was it,” Clayton-Tarvin says. “We needed to do more.”
The OVSD took legal action on multiple fronts. They challenged Rainbow's operating permit with the Orange County Health Care Agency, the first time in at least seven years that anyone had challenged any company in the county. OVSD also filed a civil lawsuit against Rainbow, alleging negligence and nuisance, and a writ of mandate seeking to stop the Wintersburg rezoning, arguing that Rainbow “repeatedly increase[d] the size of, the daily tonnage of solid waste processed at, and the amount of noxious emissions . . . with virtually no oversight by the city” and that such conditions led to “complaints to the school nurse relating to allergies, asthma, colds, sore throats, coughs, headaches, nausea and stomachaches.”
“The Oak View section of Huntington Beach has been the city's 'dumping ground' for far too long,” OVSD attorney Ed Connor wrote in another filing. “Because Oak View is a low-income, minority neighborhood, the residents of that community are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by large corporations such as Rainbow.”
In demurrers, Rainbow's legal team argued the writ should be tossed because, they claimed, the statue of limitations should've started in 1981, when Rainbow began processing trash. A judge rejected Rainbow's argument.
Lawsuits in hand, Clayton-Tarvin began recruiting. Lara-Renteria was one of her first acolytes; next came Oscar Rodríguez, a premed student at Long Beach State, chief operations officer for the Oak View Youth Soccer League and another lifelong resident.
“What's going on here is environmental racism,” the soft-spoken 21-year-old says, as he and Valladares greet residents while walking Oak View's streets. “Last year, I invited a City Council candidate to visit Oak View. He told me, 'Why does it smell like that?' 'Smell like what?' 'It stinks so bad–it's horrible,' he said. I barely even noticed. That's just disparity right there.”
Rodríguez, in turn, recruited Valladares to speak about Rainbow at a Huntington Beach City Council meeting in June. Only problem? He didn't have a ride.
“So Oscar calls a friend,” Valladares recalls, as Rodríguez takes a picture of a Rainbow truck, “and says, 'Can you go pick up the homie Victor?' That was down.”
That council meeting was the first Valladares had ever attended. “I was terrified to talk–I was just a dumbass from Oak View,” he says with a laugh. “But people I didn't know applauded. My kindergarten teacher was there. Friends were there. That was amazing. That's when I figured I could make a difference.”
Together, the two decided to do more than just fight Rainbow. Valladares built homemade traffic cones to slow down speeding cars in front of his house; Rodríguez made late-night runs to Kinko's to make fliers promoting their Facebook page, OakViewComUNIDAD, a community forum on which people can post pictures, stories and updates about their barrio. The two say they got their inspiration from Johnny Kresimir of Johnny's Saloon, who blessed the idea with a round of beers on him.
“I was one of those guys who saw people trying to do stuff, and I'd say, 'Fuck that–nothing's going to change,'” says Valladares. Rodríguez quietly laughs. “Oscar's the straight-edge kid; I'm the bad one. We're yin and yang.”
They are already getting results; Assemblyman Matt Harper blocked Rodríguez from viewing his Twitter account after Rodríguez asked how much money the former Huntington Beach council member had taken from Rainbow over the years (more than $9,000 from Rainbow and Republic in 2014 alone). Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates is now in constant communication with the two.
And on the legal front, the victories keep piling up. Earlier this year, a hearing officer ruled that the Orange County Health Care Agency ignored OVSD complaints about Rainbow when renewing its operating permit, calling it an “abuse of discretion”; the county is currently appealing. On June 22, an Orange County Superior Court judge told Huntington Beach to undo the Wintersburg property's industrial zoning and ensure it never be used by Rainbow for waste operations. And the AQMD is sniffing around again: Since 2014, records show the regulatory board has issued six notices of violation against Rainbow; much more than any other trash hauler in Orange County. Logs indicate Rainbow has received more than 200 odor complaints since 2007.
Reached via email, Rainbow vice president of public affairs Sue Gordon expressed bewilderment over OVSD's campaign against the company. “The reality is, Rainbow received very few odors complaints until the district brought litigation,” she wrote. “We enjoyed a very positive relationship with previous school administrations over a span of many years.” Gordon said it was “perfectly appropriate to be neighbors with the school,” given Rainbow has implemented odor and dust controls as it and Oak View have expanded and continues to do so, calling accusations of environmental racism “uncivil and uninformed.”
“Rainbow Environmental cares deeply about this community,” Gordon stated. “Through volunteerism, civic engagement and always doing the right thing, we will continue to be embedded in the community, irrespective of the current litigation. It's who we are, and it's how we operate.”
None of the major nonprofits that serve Oak View, the El Viento Foundation and the Oak View Renewal Partnership–both of which have accepted donations from Rainbow, with the latter listing Rainbow as a major sponsor and president Jeff Snow as a member of its advisory board–has joined the effort to fight the company. The 2012 book One Square Mile: A Journey of Community Empowerment, which purports to tell the story of Oak View, describes Rainbow as a “community-based organization that employs many of our residents” and “an important factor in the economic life [of] our community for over a generation.”
Clayton-Tarvin isn't bothered by such apathy, or that others in Oak View might not support the efforts against Rainbow. “Most people, if you explain the story, they don't like it,” she says. “But the people in charge don't care–that's the problem.”
“These are our homes,” adds Rodríguez. “This is our community. We're staying here, and we're going to make things better.”
On July 6, dozens of people showed up to the Huntington Beach City Council chambers to protest the possible rezoning of Don the Beachcomber, the legendary tiki bar in Surfside.
Also there were Clayton-Tarvin and Rodríguez, who are becoming council regulars. Clayton-Tarvin spoke first, presenting a PowerPoint that showed Rainbow's most recent AQMD violations on the screen. She told the council about the “absolutely disgusting stench” near Oak View Elementary. “Horrendous stench. I go to the school. It smelled like decomposing bodies.”
Rodríguez followed, telling the council, “I'm fed up; we're all fed up. We will be calling AQMD until it stops. Once you educate people, you cannot take that away.”
Following him was OVSD vice-chairman John Briscoe, who made people laugh when he said if Rainbow keeps getting bigger, “Huntington Beach, Surf City, will become Huntington Beach, Stink City, as the Circle of STINK expands.”
Rainbow recently announced it was building a full-enclosure facility to try to clamp down on odors. But that's not good enough for Clayton-Tarvin. She wants to make sure Rainbow installs biofilters and allows OVSD to have a say in any proposal Rainbow has for the Wintersburg site. And if Rainbow can pay all of the district's legal and attorney fees? Even better.
“We don't need to sue anyone, and we're not asking for one cent,” Clayton-Tarvin says, back again on Nichols Street with Rodríguez and Valladares, staring down their adversary. “But this issue has been ignored for years. That's why we're here. And I believe that the reason the city allowed this is because the residents here don't matter to them.”
Suddenly, a fetid blast makes an onlooker cough. Clayton-Tarvin doesn't flinch.
“This?” she asks. “This is a good day.”