Incentive Formula : La Mesa Offers to Buy Out Lease So Gas Producer Will Leave Town

Times Staff Writer

City officials here are urging a manufacturer of two deadly gases to move out of the city, and have offered a cash buy-out on the firm's lease to encourage it to find a new address.

In a letter to Union Carbide Corp., Mayor Fred Nagel this week asked the giant chemical firm to move its subsidiary, Phoenix Research Corp., which produces arsine and phosphine gas in a small building on Alvarado Road.

Also, the city manager and the president of Phoenix are discussing "some kind of assistance, some cash" from the city if Phoenix will move out before its lease expires in 1991, Nagel said Wednesday.

"His immediate reaction was, 'I might be interested,' " Nagel said of Phoenix President Randall Kelley. Nagel said the amount was undecided, but added: "We're not talking millions. We're not talking hundreds of thousands."

The unusual offer comes six weeks after La Mesa residents began circulating petitions demanding that the company move out. The petitions, said to include hundreds of signatures, were to go to the City Council at its next meeting.

The petition drive began after The Times described how Phoenix had operated in La Mesa for 12 years--apparently safely but barely scrutinized despite a web of laws and agencies created to monitor hazardous materials.

Arsine and phosphine are dopant gases, used to alter the electrical properties of materials used in semiconductors. Exposure to as little as 500 parts per million of arsine is almost instantly lethal, destroying red blood cells by freeing the hemoglobin.

Even Kelley has said he understands people's objections to his plant's location.

"It's hard to argue with that issue, I suppose," he said in November. "It's like arguing with motherhood and apple pie. Maybe in the environment we live in today, if we were going to site a new plant, we would probably try to locate it in an area that was not so densely populated. It's good common sense."

Kelley, who is described by health and safety officials as highly competent and cooperative, could not be reached Wednesday afternoon for comment on Nagel's actions.

The letter, addressed to the president of Union Carbide, had a supplicatory tone.

"The city of La Mesa, Calif., finds itself to be in a most unenviable position," it began. "We have discovered to our dismay, surprise and horror that La Mesa is one of two cities within the United States where two of the world's most deadly gases, phosphine and arsine, are manufactured."

Nagel went on to describe La Mesa as a quiet residential city with little industrial zoning--an inappropriate place for extremely dangerous gases, he said. He said the plant has cooperated with half a dozen municipal, county and state agencies, and has installed the latest safety equipment.

"There still remains the one unknown: the human factor," Nagel wrote. "No one may predict when human breakdown will occur and experience tells us that given enough time, it will."

Stressing that La Mesa is "not anti-business" and pointing out that Phoenix's lease expires Jan. 1, 1991, Nagel concluded by saying, "I as mayor implore you to seek as early a departure as possible for Phoenix from La Mesa."

In an interview Wednesday, Nagel said Kelley and the city manager began discussions last week on the possibility of "a cash buy-out on their lease." He said the city would try to "set up an amortization schedule on the lease to encourage them to move earlier."

Nagel said the city Planning Department is expected to recommend shortly that the City Council modify its zoning laws "to make it impossible for this to happen again, by defining what kinds of uses can occur in industrial zones."

Phoenix moved to La Mesa in 1973, setting up shop in a low-slung brick building on Alvarado Road. The business license information available through city records suggests that the firm stated simply that it was working in "research and development."

Because Phoenix leased an existing building, planning officials say they knew nothing of its existence.

City Fire Department officials inspected the plant regularly for 12 years, and records suggest they understood its risks. However, when other city officials received an anonymous call about the plant 13 months ago, most said they had no idea it was there.

"In 1973, the level of consciousness and awareness of hazardous materials and toxic wastes was not as high as it is today," Nagel said Wednesday. "We weren't as enlightened as we are now. None of us, including the press."

Nagel said he believes Phoenix will move out.

However, Larry Aker, chief of hazardous-materials management for San Diego County, raised questions about the implications of the city's actions.

"The county health department certainly wouldn't want to second guess the judgment of the City of La Mesa in this issue," he said. "As a separate issue, if one city doesn't find it worthwhile to have a corporation like this, where are they going to move? Will we be faced with having the facility locate in an unincorporated area, or in another city? I don't know what options are left for a company."

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