A scrap metal recycling facility is facing criminal charges in connection with allegedly contaminating the grounds of a Los Angeles high school with lead and other toxic pollutants.
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón filed 22 felony and two misdemeanor counts against Atlas Metals, alleging the plant illegally disposed of hazardous waste, some of which was deposited on the grounds of the high school.
“The charging of Atlas Metal for their environmental crimes is a step toward justice for the children of Jordan High School and the community of Watts,” Gascón said in a public statement. “We must hold companies accountable for their actions that put our children’s health at risk.”
An arraignment in the case is set for Monday, June 26. The charges date back to 2020, but Gascón says the school has likely been exposed to toxic waste for decades. The school has been around since 1923, and the plant since 1949.
Students and local leaders have been protesting against the plant for decades. The plant has been a nuisance at best and dangerous at worst, students say.
“There were times we had this purple haze coming over the campus,” says 18-year-old Heaven Watson, a recent graduate. “Our baseball field was shut down, there were these really funky smells throughout campus, and huge booms.”
Jordan High, a 500-hundred-pupil facility in Watts, sits next to Atlas Iron and Metal Company, a scrap metal recycling facility. The haze comes from lead dust particles emitted by the plant, according to school district officials. Last year, testing commissioned by the district found lead concentrations in dust samples collected from campus were 75 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency defines as a hazardous threshold. Exposure to lead is particularly dangerous for young people; it can seriously impact the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and lead to learning and behavior problems.
“I knew my community deserved better,” says Genesis Cruz, a 17-year-old Jordan student, who, for the past four years, has helped organize protests against the plant. Cruz belongs to the Coalition for Healthy Families, a local advocacy group.
Watts, a historically Black community in South Los Angeles, is today predominantly Hispanic. It’s one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, with a long history of environmental racism, ranking in the 100th percentile of most pollution-burdened communities in California, according to CalEnviroScreen data. Pollution caused by diesel trucks, traffic, and other industries; poor drinking water quality; and lead contamination—which are linked to respiratory ailments, cancer, and cognitive impairment, among other issues—are just some of the environmental burdens the community faces. The average life expectancy in Watts is 10 years shorter than in more affluent areas of the city.
Cruz and Watson describe how students often crowd the narrow hallways and cramped classrooms of their school during lunchtime—even on sunny days—to avoid going outdoors where the thick smoke and toxic fumes often cloud the playing fields.
To keep out the fumes and noise, teachers often close classroom windows, even in the stifling heat, Watson says. Students can often see mountains of metal from their classroom vantage points and have even found pieces of shrapnel on the baseball fields. That’s just from routine operations. In 2002, a bomb exploded in the scrapyard, sending shards of metal onto the school’s campus.
In 2020, the Los Angeles Unified School District filed a lawsuit against the plant, which demanded the company stop allowing “dangerous, sharp metal projectiles, fine metallic dust and other objects to be launched or emitted from their property” onto the school campus. In 2021, the city attorney’s office went so far as to issue a restraining order against Atlas.
“It took us 15 years to get to these charges,” says Tim Watkins, CEO of Watts Labor Community Action Committee and the president of Coalition for Healthy Families, a campaign against the plant. The Coalition for Healthy Families and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have called for a total shutdown of the facility. They have also urged California state officials, as well as the Biden administration, which has made environmental justice a centerpiece of its agenda, to support their efforts.
“Hundreds of acres in Watts have been contaminated with the same elements that Atlas Metals is charged with producing,” Watkins says. “I’m just frustrated that this is what it takes to get action.”
Earlier this month, attorneys for both the Los Angeles Unified School District and the City of Los Angeles made a joint statement with Atlas about reaching a settlement this year, although it is still unclear whether the plant will close. Benjamin Gluck, legal counsel for Atlas, told Nexus Media News the company was “disappointed” with the charges and that it was “actively working with the many public agencies involved and is actually moving close to a global resolution.” He added, “We will defend this case vigorously.”
Recycling plants like Atlas can prevent reusable metals from ending up in landfills. However, the process can release metal particulates, including lead, into the air at toxic levels.
“It kind of sucks that we’ve had to advocate for this,” says Watson, who has organized protests against the plant in front of the facility, around Watts, and even outside the White House in Washington, D.C. “This should already be set in place. There’s always an alternative way to do things,” she says—for one, not siting polluting plants next to schools in the first place. “People just don’t want to because it’s pricey.”
The battle to shut down the plant in Watts is one that is being replicated throughout the U.S. as frontline communities—typically low-income communities of color—fight for cleaner air, water, and land. Polluting industries have historically been placed in these communities, in large part, due to racist redlining practices.
And though the fate of the Atlas plant is unclear, its standoff with students has produced a generation of environmental activists. Cruz, who will be a senior in the fall, says the fight against Atlas has sparked a passion for advocacy—and an interest in studying law. Watson, headed to college in the fall, plans to major in American Studies while staying active in her alma mater’s campaign for environmental justice.
“When you experience things firsthand and see the effects of it, you feel more motivated to speak out… We have to stop it,” she says.
Lucy Sherriff is a British journalist based in Los Angeles with more than 12 years of experience covering stories around the globe. She directs and produces documentaries, makes podcasts, and covers breaking news and current events for the United Nations, BBC, NatGeo, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and many more. She won Best Director at the Toronto International Women's Film Festival for her documentary Born in Prison, and a United Nations Correspondents Association prize for a collection of short films and articles she produced about climate change in Colombia. A piece she published in Popular Science about drought along the Mexican border was cited in a civil lawsuit against the Trump administration.