This article originally appeared on watchdog.org.
HOUSTON — Why do multiple Texas cities want to host the Sriracha factory that caused health problems in California?
That’s the question Texas Monthly put in a headline Thursday, begging the more obvious question about whether those health problems are real.
The answer, and the reason the story is generating even more interest than Toyota’s recently announced move to Texas, is simple: Californians and Texans both appreciate hot sauce, and Huy Fong Foods’ iconic rooster sauce is awesome. (If you want to see what the fuss is about, soak some hamburger patties in rooster sauce, then grill and serve with Gruyere, avocado and spinach.)
The story also fits the familiar narrative of successful businesses fleeing the regulatory or tax hassles of California for the freedom of Texas. We can appreciate it whenever a journalist stops to question an easy narrative, but in this case the conventional wisdom is also the truth. Huy Fong Foods is demonstrably harmless, a victim of oppressive government.
Huy Fong Foods, which sells some 20 million bottles a year of its Sriracha sauce, built a $40 million plant in Irwindale after the city offered a loan on generous terms. After Huy Fong Foods repaid the loan early, the city turned on the company, filing a lawsuit, siccing air regulators on the company and declaring it a public nuisance.
In Texas Monthly’s telling, that came “after reports of ‘burned eyes, inflamed asthma,’ and an entire birthday party being forced to flee indoors ‘after the spicy smell descended on the festivities.’ That sounds like a joke, but in late November, a judge granted a partial injunction.”
It is a joke, a cruel one, to invite a chile bottler to town and then complain the air smells like chiles. It doesn’t become less of a joke just because a joke of a California judge takes it seriously. (And that is the complaint; even the activist judge acknowledged there was “a lack of credible evidence” linking the factory to any health problems.)
The real story, which the magazine’s own readers quickly pointed out, is that almost all of the complaints about smells came from four households, one of them belonging to the son of a councilman trying to chase the company off.
Inspectors from the South Coast Air Quality Management District have swarmed the factory since then, but haven’t issued a single citation.
A Texan might respond to that set of facts by wondering why a judge would try to be the air police if California already has air quality regulators, or whether California actually has a law about odors for the court to enforce. (It doesn’t; the judge decided the smell was “extremely annoying” and likely to cause “irreparable harm” to somebody unless halted immediately.)
Californians, on the other hand, are as accustomed to judicial overreach as a fish is to water, and never even notice it. They’d ask different questions, like, “Is Irwindale actually a city? You mean people live there?” Even folks from the area wouldn’t think of it as anything more than a couple of industrial parks surrounding a dam and a desolate airfield. If you wanted to spray some napalm around with an industrial fan, or test a dirty bomb, Irwindale would be a great place for it.
The idea that anyone living near that stretch of the 605 would complain about industry is absurd to a Californian. That’s Southern California’s last industrial hub, and several of the cities there are just like Irwindale, in that less than 1 percent of the real estate is used for residences.
Folks who follow the news would know to take any official complaints there with a grain of salt, as most of those cities (Vernon, most famously) are run as little fiefdoms by officials unaccountable to voters, since there aren’t any voters. Savvy observers, like journalist Joe Mathews, know Irwindale more “for regular waves of local corruption” than for any claims to respectability.
The latest scandal, for example, is that the mayor and two City Council pals spent more than $200,000 on trips to New York involving limousine services, Broadway shows and New York Yankees games.
A Texan wouldn’t know all that. That’s why a blogger at the Houston Chronicle would fit the story into his own worldview, where this is all about a polluter running from accountability to a lax environment like Texas, “where we care a lot less about such niceties as clean air.”
The ignored detail that tells you everything is that AQMD regulators haven’t issued a single citation, despite incessant inspections. That acronym is meaningless to a Texan, but Californians know the agency is stuffed with misanthropes.
The AQMD actually tried to get rid of all the fire pits on Southern California beaches recently, on account of the “pollution” from wood smoke. I’m not sure I can capture just how much a beachside fire means to a Californian’s idea of the good life, and what an insult the AQMD’s effort was. Maybe if somebody confiscated all the guns in Texas and used them to shoot all the cows to reduce methane emissions, that might be the equivalent.
So if those jerks can’t find fault, then there’s simply no problem for Texans to worry about.
Let the great exodus proceed.