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Not Welcome in La Mesa : Phoenix Toxic Gas Producer to Head for North Woods

Times Staff Writer

Phoenix Research Corp., which has become an unwelcome guest in this primarily residential community since divulging that it produces highly toxic gases, has announced that it will move to a small town in Washington by next summer.

La Mesa Mayor Fred Nagel had nothing but praise for the decision by the Union Carbide subsidiary to depart for Washougal, Wash., terming the company “extremely cooperative” and “fine corporate citizens.” Despite the words, however, Phoenix Corp. is one corporate citizen that the quiet East County city will be glad to be rid of.

The company produces arsine and phosphine, both of which are lethal, even in very small doses. For years, the plant had been quietly manufacturing the gases with the full knowledge of the Fire Department, although unbeknownst to other city officials.

Then, in 1984, in the wake of the Union Carbide accident in Bhopal, India, city officials received an anonymous call warning about the chemicals. Despite the flawless safety record of the plant and despite the fact that company officials made every effort to comply with the city’s requests, La Mesa decided that this was simply not the sort of business that a bedroom community of 52,000 wanted.

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In January, Nagel wrote a letter to Union Carbide President H.F. Tomfohrde, assuring him that although La Mesa has nothing against big business or Union Carbide, this was one plant that might better be doing business elsewhere. Within weeks, Tomfohrde had written back, promising to find “a more suitable location” for the plant long before its lease was due to run out in 1991.

Thus, it was with no little satisfaction that Nagel said that the primary cause for the move was: “My letter.”

“This is as expeditious as we had a right to expect. I know--because I’m in the electronics industry myself--that this is very fast for a company to move an entire facility,” Nagel said.

But Phoenix President Randall Kelley said that the letter had little influence over the move, calling it “a pure business decision.”

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“We chose that site so that we could effect a consolidation of our gas production; we already have our crystal and silicon operations there,” Kelley said, adding that the move would have taken place independent of any request by the mayor. (Arsine and phosphine are used in the production of silicon chips.)

The relocation will be part of a $5-million expansion of the current facilities in Washougal, which, aside from its more isolated location, offers convenient shipping facilities, Kelley said. In the new factory, which will be built from scratch, Phoenix Corp. will be able to expand the line of gases it produces, including “some that will be toxic and some that won’t be,” Kelley said.

Washougal Mayor William Bright said the subsidiary would be a welcome addition to the city’s growing collection of industrial concerns. Because of the decline of the logging industry and of federal and state aid to local governments, the city has been hoping to expand both its job pool and its tax base with a new industrial park.

“Personally, I think people are being a little paranoid down there,” Bright said. “They’re making comparisons with the situation in India that just can’t be made. We’re quite comfortable with the company.”

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After extensive consultations and visits to the La Mesa facility, Bright said, he and other city officials are convinced that the toxic gases will pose no health hazard to Washougal’s 4,100 citizens.

“Hell, I don’t know of one firm up here that doesn’t deal with toxic materials of one sort or another; it’s all in how you handle them,” he said.

As for Nagel, he is confident that a new tenant for the building that Phoenix Corp. occupies will be found, and he is pleased that Union Carbide has offered to move all of its employees to the new site.

“Of course, I’m concerned wherever people’s economic well-being is jeopardized, but this proves that we’re also concerned about the safety of the city,” Nagel said. “Besides, the Pacific Northwest isn’t that bad of a place to live.”

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