The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration has ordered Neville Chemical Co., a firm on the state's list of worst toxic waste sites, to protect workers and clean up highly toxic chemicals that pose a health hazard to employees.
"The entire facility should be deemed contaminated," the order said. The contaminants, including dioxins, have been linked to liver damage, neurological changes and reproductive abnormalities, the order said.
Neville, which ranks 40th on a list of 209 California toxic waste sites, is already under a court order to pave its property and an adjoining vacant lot where the contaminants have been found. The order was part of an ongoing suit against the firm by the state Department of Health Services.
Cal-OSHA issued its order to protect workers who may be assigned to work on the cleanup, agency officials said.
"Our concern is to have employees involved in the cleanup protected from any possible exposure," said Dianne Dienstein , a Cal-OSHA spokeswoman.
Jack Ferguson, Neville plant manager, said the company is protecting its employees and is appealing the Cal-OSHA order. The plant employs 18 workers.
The order gives Neville until June 14 to either pave or remove soil on the premises and clean up floors and equipment contaminated with dioxins and furans, which are chemical compounds similar to dioxin. (Dioxin is highly toxic, carcinogenic and can cause birth defects.) The chemicals were produced as an unwanted byproduct in the manufacture of chlorinated wax used to coat cables and wires.
The order also requires the firm to train employees for decontamination work, provide protective clothing and respirators, store and label contaminated waste material and clothing in airtight containers, restrict access to cleanup areas and use special vacuum cleaners for control of contaminated dust.
It was the second order to be issued by Cal-OSHA against the firm on Imperial Highway this year. In March, the agency set strict specifications for yearly medical examinations of workers and required Neville to supply workers with protective clothing.
Although Neville has "tried to give their people a good medical exam," the reporting of medical test results was poor and additional protective equipment was needed, said Joyce Simonowitz, a Cal-OSHA nursing consultant.
A 1984 Cal-OSHA study of Neville personnel files did not find a high incidence of cancer among workers there over a period of several decades, compared to the incidence of cancer countywide, Simonowitz said. However, she said, the study is not conclusive because the pool of Neville workers was too small.
Neville has appealed both Cal-OSHA orders, disputing the types and levels of contaminants listed as well as the safe exposure levels set by the state, said Ferguson.
Workers at the plant are not in danger, he maintained. In 1978, Ferguson said, the company began giving workers yearly medical exams. Plant safety committees and annual inspections by insurance companies help ensure that employees are adequately protected, he said. Workers wear hard hats, gloves and safety glasses and do not need special protective clothing, Ferguson said.
Warning signs about dioxins and furans are not posted, he said, because Neville does not believe any dangerous forms or levels of the chemicals are present.
"The apparent level of contamination in our plant would seem to be isolated to very small areas of very low concentrations," Ferguson said.
The firm has spent $500,000 to test soil samples taken on its property and in the adjacent lot, Ferguson said, and most of the samples showed no measurable levels of dioxins and furans. In response to the recent court order, Neville has begun engineering work to pave the adjacent vacant lot, Ferguson said. But the company refused to comply with a state order to drill a ground-water monitoring well at the site, state Health Department officials said.
The well is necessary to determine if any ground water under the plant is contaminated, state officials said. The state would have to take Neville to court to force the ground-water testing.