Officials Aid Neighborhood Fight Against Fumes at GM

Times Staff Writer

Urged on by angry residents, air quality officials are trying to control pungent chemical odors that are wafting into a Van Nuys neighborhood from the giant General Motors assembly plant.

During the last three weeks, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has issued nine notices of violation to GM, most related to odors from a new auto painting process GM started using in late August, when production began on 1986 models.

Concerned that the corrective steps GM is taking might not prove effective, air district officials also asked the agency’s hearing board last week to issue GM an abatement order. The order would force GM to stop the painting operation or show the board that it is doing all it can to solve the odor problem.

The hearing board is expected to issue a ruling after an Oct. 1 public hearing at district headquarters in El Monte.

Headaches, Nausea Alleged

Sandra Brown, whose home on Lorne Street is within a few hundred feet of the GM plant at 8000 Van Nuys Blvd., said that, since late August, the aroma of paint fumes at times has been powerful enough to cause headaches and nausea. When the wind sweeps from the south over GM’s roof, she said, it can be like sticking “your head in a paint can.”


“We know we’ve got a neighborhood problem,” said Ernie Schaefer, plant manager at GM, where 5,000 workers turn out Camaros and Firebirds. “We feel we’re working our way out of it.”

Each violation of air district rules carries a maximum penalty of $1,000. Violation of an abatement order, should one be issued, carries a maximum penalty of $6,000 a day.

Prosecutors with the Los Angeles city attorney’s office said they are considering whether to charge GM with misdemeanor violations of the state Health and Safety Code. In 1978, a Municipal Court jury convicted GM of odor violations under the code, although the company avoided paying a $500 fine until 1981, when its appeals were exhausted.

EPA Violation Notice

In a separate action unrelated to the neighborhood complaints, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently issued the Van Nuys plant a notice of violation for exceeding limits on volatile compounds, such as solvents, in its auto paints. Solvent vapors, when exposed to sunlight, can form ozone, a lung irritant.

EPA officials said they are weighing GM’s response to the violation notice and have not decided on additional actions.

The Van Nuys dispute is a case in which concern about plant closures and technological change to meet foreign competition has affected local environmental conditions.

Vibrant Shine for Cars

To angry residents such as Brown, the recent nasal assault is something of a cruel joke because GM officials had vowed that their new coating process would eliminate occasional odor problems--not make them worse.

The new paint process, known as “base coat/clear coat” and used on many foreign cars, imparts a vibrant shine. It also is smellier than other coatings and contains a higher solvent content.

GM officials have said they had to convert to the process to meet foreign competition. The Van Nuys plant must stay “as competitive as any other plant or we’re starting to write our own epitaph,” Schaefer said.

Anticipating more odors with the new type of paint, GM spent $8 million to install seven incinerators on drying ovens to burn fumes rising from freshly painted cars. Last spring, company officials called a community meeting and told neighbors that the incinerators would deodorize the plant.

“They made a big point of how much they cost,” Brown recalled. “They guaranteed 90% elimination” of paint odors.

GM Pays Motel Bill

But the smell was worse than ever when production resumed near the end of last month, residents said. At one point, GM even paid the motel bill for a handicapped resident of Lorne Street who moved out of her home because of the fumes.

Air district officials, who said they have received complaints from at least 23 residents of the area, have cited GM six times for odor violations since Aug. 30. They also have issued two violation notices alleging illegal smoke emissions. GM also has been ticketed for running the paint lines when one of the incinerators was down for repair.

Some residents say they fear that the paint emissions are not just a nuisance, but a long-term threat to health--a concern GM officials say is groundless. Jim Birakos, deputy executive officer for the air district, said that levels of toxic contaminants in the neighborhood’s air “appear to us to be insignificant” but that county health officials are being asked to review air-monitoring data.

Company officials said in interviews that the incinerators are doing their job--eliminating odors from the drying ovens--but that odors are coming from the spray booths.

No Devices for Booths

There are no odor-control devices on the spray booths--long, rectangular enclosures in which car bodies are sprayed with paint. Schaefer said the company erroneously assumed that fumes vented from the spray booths would be diluted in the air enough to prevent odor problems.

Company officials would not have raised neighbors’ expectations “if we hadn’t . . . felt very comfortable about where we were,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said he welcomes the Oct. 1 hearing as an opportunity to tell the air district hearing board how hard GM is trying to solve the odor problem. He said he is confident the hearing board “will buy into the program” of corrections GM has undertaken.

Schaefer said the company has relocated part of the painting operation within the plant and has taken other steps to diminish the problem. But the main strategy is to further dilute the smelly fumes by raising the height of the vent stacks on the roof of the complex.

Eight Stacks Raised

Schaefer and Dennis Heinemann, plant engineer at GM, said the company already has raised eight stacks from 125 feet to 150 feet above the ground, and this weekend is using a helicopter to extend them to 175 feet. By the end of October, they said, all 60 rooftop vents will be extended to 175 feet, at a cost of nearly $4 million.

“We’re really committed to solving the problem,” Schaefer said.

But air district officials and some of the neighbors aren’t convinced that raising the stacks will suffice.

The plant soon will be turning out about 60 cars per hour, which Birakos said is about four times the current production rate. “We’re having problems up there now and they’re only getting 15 or 16 cars through there now,” he said. “As the numbers increase, obviously the odor problems are going to increase.”

Brown said the taller stacks may propel plant emissions beyond her street, causing a problem for those living farther away. “It may solve our problem from an odor standpoint,” she said, but added, “We don’t feel that’s the answer.”

District Relaxed Rule

In a sense, the air district is at both ends of the problem, since its governing board last year relaxed a key regulation to allow GM to convert to the new painting process. The regulation does not relate to odors but to vapor emissions from auto paint that contribute to ozone formation.

Air district officials estimate that GM’s new painting process will emit at least 1,500 pounds more solvent vapors each day than did the old process.

Until the revision was adopted in March, 1984, the air district had an extremely stringent rule to control emissions from paint lines at auto assembly plants, of which there are only two in the South Coast Air Quality Management District: GM in Van Nuys and a smaller Toyota truck plant in Long Beach. The rule, adopted in 1979, set progressively lower numerical limits on solvent emissions from paint.

According to air district records and interviews with agency officials, GM told the air district it could not comply with the rule, even with the low-solvent coatings it was using. Moreover, GM said, it intended to switch to the base coat/clear coat compounds, which have a higher solvent content.

Vote to Revise Rule

“Industry said, ‘We’ll have to close down. We can’t meet’ ” the standards, Birakos said.

The district board voted unanimously to revise the regulation to accommodate the new process. The revised rule relaxed the numerical limits, but required GM to try to achieve emission reductions.

The EPA, however, has not approved the weaker rule. Still in effect as far as the federal agency is concerned is the old rule, which it approved in 1982 as part of the state’s air quality plan.

In April, according to EPA records, the agency took samples of the lower-solvent coatings then in use at the Van Nuys plant. According to EPA officials, solvent levels in the coatings complied with the weakened air district rule, but not with the standards still recognized by the federal agency.

Voluminous Response Filed

In July, the EPA issued GM a notice of violation. Agency officials also have asked the company how it intends to meet the old regulation now that it is using coatings with a higher solvent content.

Abra Bennett, an environmental protection specialist with the EPA in San Francisco, said that GM this week filed a voluminous response to the violation notice, and that the agency will review the company’s case. The EPA does not impose fines but could go to court to enforce clean air standards if it does not reach an agreement with GM on a program of emission reductions.

GM officials declined to discuss the EPA notice in detail. But Schaefer said the company has taken steps to cut emissions elsewhere at the plant to offset the extra pollution from painting. “We don’t understand completely what they want us to do,” he said.

Bennett described GM’s switch to the new paints as a “marketing decision that leads them away from compliance” with clean air rules.

It raises the question, she said, of whether people prefer “to have a car that’s extremely attractive or air that’s extremely healthy.”