Less than two weeks ago, it seemed that Plato Products Inc. had won its battle to operate its metal-plating plant on this city's boundary with San Dimas.
After four years of opposition from nearby residents and scrutiny by county health and air quality officials, the plant, which manufactures soldering tips, had satisfied all but its most strident critics.
On the heels of a county health department report that found no evidence of increased health problems because of emissions from the plant, a school board member had begun leading a campaign to allay fears about the plant.
But in a matter of hours 10 days ago, the plant's future became clouded. And the school board member who was telling parents and residents that health risks were minimal is now among those seeking to close the plant permanently.
On Jan. 7, acetic acid mist escaped from the plant's nickel-plating equipment and drifted over the playground at neighboring Arma J. Shull Elementary School in San Dimas. The pungent acid, which in its diluted form is household vinegar, caused 11 children to become so ill that they missed school the next day, county health officials said.
Although health officials said the leakage posed no long-term health risks, the accident may have jeopardized Plato's efforts to keep the plant operating.
In response to the leakage, the Bonita Unified School District's board of trustees voted unanimously last Wednesday to take whatever measures would be necessary--including legal action against Plato or the City of Glendora--to force the plant's permanent closure.
The motion passed by the board was introduced by Trustee Sharon Scott. Since last month, Scott has led a campaign to inform residents of a county health report that found no increase in miscarriages, birth defects or other serious health problems among those living near the plant.
However, Scott said, those findings have been overshadowed by the acetic acid leakage.
'No Other Option'
"This is very serious," Scott said. "We no longer have a question of ambiguous risk factors. We have an absolute impact, leaving us with no other option but to protect our children."
Jeff Schenkel, who has spearheaded efforts to have the plant closed since it opened in 1984, was jubilant over the board's vote.
"The board has approved a broad-based mandate with some teeth in it," said Schenkel, whose two children attend the school. "After four years of working on this project, this is the biggest step forward toward resolving this issue, which of course means moving the plant."
On the same day the school board acted, the South Coast Air Quality Management District revoked exemptions that had allowed the company to operate most of its plating equipment without permits. After shutting down Plato's nickel-plating operations on the day of the leakage, AQMD officials inspected the plant last Monday and found that pollution control equipment was not adequately controlling acid gases.
Except for its chrome-plating operation, which is covered by a variance issued last month by the AQMD, all of the plant's plating processes have been shut down. Those operations will remain idle until the firm receives permits to install better pollution control devices to prevent a similar leak in the future, said Edward Camarena, the AQMD's deputy executive officer for operations.
"Essentially, the action shuts down the operation," Camarena said. "They could choose to ignore us, but if that happened, we would go to court to obtain a temporary restraining order."
Plato President George M. Kent has refused to say how the company will respond to the AQMD's action. Kent referred questions to his attorney, James Good, who did not return phone calls. Kent and Good attended Wednesday's school board meeting, but neither would respond to residents' concerns about the plant.
"We're not hiding in the weeds," Good told the more than 100 parents, teachers and residents assembled at the Bonita district offices. "We have nothing to add to what's been said."
Camarena said that the revocations could halt production at the plant for months and that Plato will be subject to fines of up to $25,000.
"We don't believe it is sufficient just to take corrective measures," Camarena said. "I think there needs to be penalty measures to serve as a deterrent."
After answering questions from parents at Wednesday's meeting, Camarena said San Dimas residents are committed to seeing the plant permanently closed.
"Plato has lost credibility with the community, and as a result the community is not going to be satisfied with anything short of their moving," Camarena said.
Although Plato can appeal to the AQMD hearing board for an emergency variance to resume operations without additional air pollution controls, Camarena and his assistant, Eugene Calafato, said the AQMD staff would rigorously oppose such a variance.
Calafato said the AQMD staff would not recommend permitting the plant to resume full operations "until we have confidence and a technical level of assurance that it is safe."
After some residents expressed opposition to any operations at Plato, Calafato said: "We've told you the most we can do. If that is not satisfactory to you, your recourse is to go through other channels."
Bonita school board President Biff Green said one of those channels will be the Glendora City Council. Board members said they will ask the council at its Jan. 26 meeting to explain why Plato was allowed to open the plant in 1984. Green also encouraged the audience to lobby the council for help in closing the plant permanently.
"I think we know what our marching orders are," Green said.
Glendora City Councilwoman Lois Shade was present at Wednesday's meeting but said City Atty. Cheryl Kane had advised her not to comment on the matter.
Ironically, the incident that provided the impetus for the actions against Plato by the school board and the AQMD had nothing to do with the plant's emission of hexavalent chromium, which for months had been the key health issue facing the company.
Last summer, AQMD engineers found that the plant was emitting excessive amounts of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. According to AQMD computer models, the concentration of hexavalent chromium released from the plant would result in an increased cancer risk of 13 to 16 cases per million people exposed over 70 years.
Plato responded by increasing the height of its smokestack to 38 feet to disperse the toxic vapors and by announcing plans to install a $50,000 filtering system to trap 99.5% of the chromium emitted during the chrome-plating process.
Raising the smokestack brought the cancer risk down to 10 cases per million. Last month, the AQMD hearing board granted Plato a 10-month variance to continue chrome plating until the filtering system was put into operation.
Compared to the potentially deadly long-range effects of hexavalent chromium, the health problems caused by the acetic acid released Jan. 7 were short-lived and not life-threatening, said Paul Papanek, chief of the health department's toxics and epidemiology program.
"Acetic acid is not all that toxic, but it is extremely irritating," Papanek said. The symptoms of exposure to acetic acid--headaches, nausea and eye and lung irritation--rarely last more than a day, he said.
"By and large, most people are better within an hour or two of getting out of that situation," Papanek said.
Although the adverse reaction to acetic acid is relatively minor, the fact that the school children's temporary sickness appears to have been directly related to the metal-plating plant makes health officials concerned, Papanek said.
"This is still a serious health problem," he said.
To help Papanek determine the extent of the children's exposure to acetic acid, parents of all students at the school have been asked to complete questionnaires on recurring health problems that could be related to the plant's emissions.
And whereas the subtle effects of odorless hexavalent chromium are often difficult to gauge, the strong smell of acetic acid makes it very easy for residents to know when they have been exposed, Papanek said.
"If you don't have the odor and the (eye and throat) irritation, the level of the chemical exposure is probably pretty low," he told parents Wednesday.
The information from the questionnaires will be used to bolster the health department's case that Plato is causing the headaches and other symptoms students experienced, Papanek said. He added that the sickness among the children is solid evidence in itself.
"The pattern is clear enough that it won't be any problem going into any (legal) venue and proving there was a health impact, which was short-term but lousy," Papanek said. "Our specific goal in this survey is to establish with medical certainty that there was an episode that impacted the public health."
Shull Principal Parker Sutton said he had reported vinegar odors at the school to the AQMD twice before the Jan. 7 accident, but inspectors were unable to trace the source of the smell. Teacher Jim Jones said he has smelled vinegar repeatedly while conducting physical education classes on the playground.
Some parents said the AQMD had not been sufficiently diligent in investigating complaints of odors from the plant. Camarena said the district took what steps it could, based on the information it received.
"This incident was the first time we were able to identify the odors and pinpoint the source," Camarena said. "It took only one time for us to take the actions we've taken."
Scott said that she mentioned the odors to Kent last month but that he assured her they were not emanating from the plant. As much as the incident itself, Scott said, this assurance caused her to lose faith in Plato.
"That was the crystallizing factor," Scott said. "It's certainly not right that they had to be caught for this situation to be remedied. . . . This is the sort of thing that raises the question of whether the credibility of Plato Products can be trusted with the health of our children. My feeling is that it's a question of human ethics."