The South Coast Air Quality Management District decided Wednesday to shut down nearly all metal-plating operations at a Glendora plant whose fumes had drifted over a school playground last week, causing at least 11 children to become so ill that they missed a day of school.
Edward Camarena, deputy executive officer for operations, said the agency decided to stop metal-plating operations, at least temporarily, after an inspection Tuesday at Plato Products Inc. showed that pollution control equipment was not working efficiently to control acid gases.
Camarena said the inspection was undertaken after at least 11 children at Arma J. Shull Elementary School in San Dimas stayed home Friday with headaches and sore throats incurred after vinegary fumes drifted over the school playground the previous day.
The incident that made children ill prompted the AQMD to undertake a full inspection of the plant Tuesday. Camarena said that as a result of that inspection, AQMD has denied permits Plato had pending for some pollution control equipment and revoked exemptions from the permit system that had been granted earlier.
Chrome Plating Still OK
Camarena said the action will halt all nickel, iron and tin plating, etching and cleaning operations at the plant but does not cancel the firm's chrome-plating permit.
Camarena said the enforcement action will leave Plato with the option of seeking an emergency variance or agreeing to install new pollution control equipment that will operate automatically.
Automatic equipment is needed, Camarena said, because "the firm has demonstrated it cannot operate without some possibility of employee error."
Plato President George M. Kent said Wednesday that he would have no comment on the AQMD ruling until he spoke with his attorney.
"This is now a matter that will be in the courts," Kent said. ". . .Usually, when you're planning an action, your attorney says, 'Let me do the talking.' "
Kent added that he could not be certain whether the closing of Plato's nickel-plating operation would disrupt chrome plating at the plant until he is fully informed of AQMD's action.
"I have not seen anything in writing yet from the district," he said. "I got a phone call, but that's not official as far as this is concerned. I really do need to see their notice to find out exactly what's involved."
There has been a continuing controversy over emissions from Plato since the company moved its plant to Glendora, along the San Dimas city limits, in 1984. Tests by the air quality district have shown that the plant has emitted hexavalent chromium--a known carcinogen--in concentrations that violate air quality standards. These emissions have raised concern about whether the plant poses a health hazard to children at Shull School and to other nearby residents.
The county Department of Health Services reported earlier this month that epidemiologists have found no increased incidence of miscarriages, birth defects or other adverse health effects among residents of nearby housing tracts.
Last December, an air quality district hearing board granted Plato a variance to continue operating until next October while the firm installs a system to trap 99.5% of the hexavalent chromium released during the chrome-plating process.
San Dimas resident Jeff Schenkel, who has spearheaded community opposition to Plato since the firm moved to Glendora, said that after last week's incident the company should not be permitted to obtain an emergency variance to resume nickel plating from the AQMD hearing board.
"I think that it's gone too far this time," Schenkel said. "At this point, we can't allow Plato Products to go back to the hearing board. . . . I think the pattern is clear: This company is a chronic violator."
County health officials said a number of children became sick after breathing fumes from the plant last Thursday.
Officials said the symptoms were clearly associated with the release of acetic acid last Thursday during nickel-plating operations at Plato.
Kent, Plato's president, said the company shut down a portion of its nickel-plating operation last Thursday after it was notified by the AQMD that odors were being released.
School officials learned of the health problems when they contacted about two-thirds of the parents of 41 children who were absent Friday and found that at least 11 children were kept home with symptoms associated with inhaling acetic acid, the prime ingredient in vinegar, said Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the toxics and epidemiology program of the county Department of Health Services.
Papanek said there are no long-term health effects. He said that some children are likely to be more sensitive to the fumes than adults, and that the pungent odor can produce eye and throat irritation leading to headaches and a queasy stomach. He said the effects can last an hour or into the next day.
Principal Parker Sutton said the vinegar odor was detected by both students and teachers outdoors at the school Thursday, but it did not penetrate classrooms and was not so severe that any children had to be sent home. He said teachers and students complained of nose and throat irritation and headaches.
Sutton said that on a typical day about 5%, or 28, of the 560 students in the school are absent. More than 40 students were absent on Monday and Tuesday, he reported, but attendance was back to normal by Wednesday. He said there was no evidence that any children were absent this week because of the fumes. He said many had earaches, fever or other symptoms unrelated to inhaling acetic acid.
Kent attributed the emissions to an ineffective ventilating system and a plant door that was left open.
Kent said none of the 10 employees working in the plating room or 20 employees working nearby suffered ill effects from the fumes, and no work days were lost.
Staff Writer Jeffrey Miller contributed to this story.