Experts Fail to Ease Fear Over Plato Health Risk

Times Staff Writer

Public health and air quality officials met here Tuesday night to quell fears about long-term health risks resulting from the operation of Plato Products Inc., a Glendora metal-plating firm located next to a San Dimas elementary school.

However, many of the more than 300 parents and residents who attended the meeting reacted with skepticism--sometimes even hostility--to the officials' qualified words of reassurance.

"It's all still 'if' and 'maybe,' " one parent complained.

The meeting was held in the wake of an incident on Jan. 7 when acetic acid from Plato's nickel-plating operation escaped from the plant, apparently causing children at Arma J. Shull School to become ill. All plating operations at the plant have been at least temporarily shut down.

11 Absences Cited

Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the county Department of Health Services' toxics and epidemiology program, told the parents that it appeared the acetic acid leak caused at least 11 children at the school to become so ill that they had to stay home from school the next day.

Bonita school board member Sharon Scott, who organized Tuesday's meeting at Lone Hill School, has sent a health survey to the parents of all children at Shull School. At last count, 68% of the questionnaires had been returned. Papanek said the preliminary results seem to confirm that many more children exhibited symptoms of acetic acid exposure: eye and throat irritation, headaches and nausea.

'Experienced a Nuisance'

"(The survey) tells us that it was more than just the (11) kids who were absent," Papanek said. "Other kids at least experienced a nuisance, and some may have had a minor illness."

But Papanek was quick to stress that although the exposure to pungent acetic acid--a highly concentrated form of vinegar--can cause discomfort and irritation, the incident posed no long-term health hazard.

When parents asked Papanek how he could be so sure that their children had not been permanently harmed, he cited studies of workers exposed to high concentrations of acetic acid for a few years. But when asked whether he could prove beyond any doubt that there was absolutely no potential for future health problems, Papanek said the data did not permit such a far-reaching conclusion.

Several parents scoffed at this lack of certainty.

"The doctor, he hasn't answered one question," said parent Howard VanVeghten. "He does not know the long-term effects (of the plant's emissions), and he even said so. . . . I don't want my kids dying in 20 years because of Plato."

After the two-hour meeting, Papanek sighed and shook his head.

"I'm not so sure we did our job here," he said. "I'm not so sure we got a clear message across that although this problem shouldn't be here, the magnitude of the problem is small."

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District also had trouble getting their message across to the parents.

Immediate Action

Edward Camarena, the AQMD's deputy executive officer for operations, told the audience that inspectors had shut down Plato's nickel-plating operation the day of the leak and that on Jan. 13 the district revoked the permit exemptions that had allowed the firm to operate most of its plating equipment.

These actions meant that the only plating equipment the firm can legally operate is its chrome-plating process, Camarena said, adding that Plato voluntarily shut down its chrome-plating operation last Friday.

"We have done everything in our power to shut that operation down and prevent a recurrence" of the Jan. 7 incident, Camarena told the parents. "If they open again, it would be at a level of control where I could look you in the eye and say I wouldn't mind having my own child go to school there."

However, parents expressed vehement opposition to the plant's continued existence. Several said they are unable to sell their homes because they are legally required to alert potential buyers to the plant's history of problems.

Firm May Appeal

Last Friday, Plato applied for permits to resume operating the equipment that had been previously covered by exemptions, Camarena said. Although the AQMD staff denied the application, the company may appeal to the AQMD hearing board, an independent judicial body.

When audience members pressed Camarena to guarantee that the plant would never be allowed to resume full operations, he said he could not promise that the hearing board would not give Plato the necessary permits and variances.

One audience member asked how many chances the firm would be allowed, referring to an incident that resulted in a $27,200 fine last year after the firm pleaded no contest to 10 misdemeanor counts of illegally dumping toxic wastes.

"That plant was cited 10 times for dumping into the sewers," said La Verne resident Jerry Chagaris. "What would happen if you were cited 10 times for drunk driving?"

Chagaris said the informational meeting left him doubting public officials' credibility.

'Only Ones I Believe'

"I can't believe these people, that they're doing anything--except the school board," Chagaris said. "They're the only ones I believe."

The two representatives of the Bonita school board, which serves San Dimas and La Verne, received the best response from the crowd, including the evening's only applause.

On Jan. 13, the board voted to seek the closure of the plant through whatever means necessary, including legal action against Plato or the City of Glendora. Tuesday night, Scott and board President Biff Green restated that promise.

"The only option is for that plant to be gone," Scott said, receiving an enthusiastic ovation.

Glendora Blamed

Both Scott and Green placed much of the blame for the Plato problem on the doorstep of Glendora. According to AQMD officials, the city apparently issued Plato a permit to build its factory in 1984 without requiring an environmental impact report.

"They need to be accountable for that lack of an environmental impact study," Scott said. "The buck stops with the (Glendora) City Council, and that's where we're going to start."

Scott and Green attended the Glendora City Council's Jan. 12 meeting and have asked to be placed on the council agenda next Tuesday. They said they plan to ask council members to explain how Plato received approval to build its metal-plating plant next to a school and to request the city's help in closing the plant.

"They know we're coming, and I hope they have some answers for us," Green said.

Legal Difficulty

However, Glendora Mayor Kenneth Prestesater said he is not sure the City Council can provide the board members with the answers they want. For one thing, Prestesater said, his city may not have the legal right to close the plant.

"I don't know that we have the ability to shut down Plato Products unless we have some evidence of any wrongdoing or misuse of the property or something on that order," Prestesater said. "If we were to close down Plato Products without any basis for such actions, they would have an opportunity to take legal recourse against the city."

Prestesater said the council never voted on Plato's application for a permit to build the plant when the firm sought to move to Glendora in 1984. Because the property was designated for a manufacturing use and Plato met all other zoning criteria, the firm's request was approved routinely by the city's Planning Department, he said.

However, Prestesater said the Glendora City Council could act to close the plant if the AQMD, the county health department or the Bonita school district can show that emissions from the facility have caused health problems among students at Shull School.

'Another Look'

"If anything were proven about any damage to any children, we would move to expedite the matter," Prestesater said. "As soon as there are any grounds that are filed by any entity, we can take another look at it."

Eugene Calafato, assistant to the executive officer of the AQMD, said the Glendora City Council should have sufficient cause to call for the plant's closure.

"When they ask for evidence, the question is, 'What evidence do they need?' " Calafato said. "The trail of (Plato's) infractions and violations is a matter of record."

Some parents of students at Sutherland School in Glendora, about a mile from the plant, have reported adverse reactions to what they believed to be acetic acid emissions. But Prestesater said Plato has not been an major issue for Glendora residents.

"We first heard about it when it was brought up by the Bonita school district," he said.

Wider Problem

Officials at Tuesday's meeting said the controversy reflects a wider problem of cities not being sufficiently concerned about how their planning decisions might affect residents of neighboring areas.

"There are lessons to be learned from this," Calafato said. "There has to be a greater awareness and clear action on the parts of city councils working along with their planning commissions and regulatory agencies."

"We have not been very smart as a society," Papanek said. "We need to have our politicians and other people who are more powerful than I am to move forward on these issues."

The question of cities' responsibilities to their neighbors is being considered by Republican Assemblyman Bill Lancaster, whose district includes San Dimas, and Democratic Assemblywoman Sally Tanner, who is known for her efforts to regulate toxic wastes.

Lawmakers Meet

Lancaster and Tanner met Tuesday to discuss the Plato situation and consider steps to avoid such planning disputes in the future.

"It really is unfortunate when one city takes action that a neighboring city cannot prevent, but that affects the neighboring city," Tanner said. "We in the Legislature have always treated land use as a local issue . . . but it's just not right that a city wouldn't consider how its actions affect its neighbors."

Although Tanner said she became interested in this issue as a result of the Plato controversy, she said any action she takes will have little or no bearing on whether the plant remains open.

Voluntary Closure Urged

For most in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, the key question was how residents could achieve the plant's permanent closure.

Jeff Schenkel, Plato's most strident foe since the firm opened the plant in Glendora in 1984, said the company should cut its losses and close.

"I think the only honorable thing for Plato to do is to shut their doors on a voluntary basis," Schenkel said. "I'm sure that's an option they're evaluating now on economic and legal grounds."

Calafato, who has often quarrelled with Schenkel over the Plato issue, responded favorably to his suggestion that the plant might close of its own volition.

"It would certainly be a desirable solution if the various parties could come to agree to that," Calafato said. "But we can't speak for Plato."

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