Parents Win Battle Over Factory Pollution : After Mishap, Plant by School Agrees to Halt Most Metal Plating Work

Times Staff Writer

A four-year campaign by parents in San Dimas to shut down a metal-plating plant next to an elementary school resulted in a major victory Tuesday as officials of Plato Products Inc. agreed to cease most plating operations by Sept. 1.

The firm reached the agreement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District less than three weeks after pungent acetic acid mist escaped from the plant, causing between 90 and 100 schoolchildren to become ill, according to health department figures released Monday.

Exposure to the acetic acid--essentially undiluted vinegar--resulted in eye and throat irritations, headaches and nausea that persisted for as long as a day after the Jan. 7 accident, said Paul Papanek, chief of the toxics and epidemiology program for the county Department of Health Services.

‘Mild and Transient’ Effects

Although Papanek said the effects of the acetic acid exposure were “mild and transient,” the incident marked the first time health problems could be directly attributed to plating emissions. That, in turn, prompted a sudden turn in the campaign by nearby residents, which had appeared to be doomed.

Earlier this month, Papanek had reported that those living near Plato had no higher incidence of serious health problems such as birth defects and miscarriages than would be considered normal.

“It provided tangible evidence that there was something dangerous, physically impacting the children at that school,” said Jeff Schenkel, whose two daughters attend Arma J. Shull School, which is across a small grassy field from the plant.

Move to Glendora

Schenkel spearheaded residents’ opposition to the plant since Plato moved from El Monte to Glendora--right at the San Dimas city line--in 1984. He wrote letters, made emotional appeals for help at agency meetings and urged his neighbors to continue fighting even after officials downplayed potential health risks.

“I don’t think it’s time to close the door on this issue,” Schenkel said after the plant got a clean bill of health from county officials earlier this month.

“Our kids have been breathing that foul air for quite a few years,” parent Patrick Gavrity said about the settlement. “I guess I won’t be completely satisfied until that plant is gone.”

Immediately after the Jan. 7 acid leak was reported, AQMD inspectors ordered that the nickel-plating equipment responsible for the operation be shut down. On Jan. 13, the air-quality district required Plato to halt almost all of its plating operations after a full inspection of the plant revealed that much of the pollution control equipment was not functioning properly.

Residents Vent Anger

In addition, twice in the past two weeks the Bonita Unified School District, which includes Shull School, held meetings on the subject. Residents vented their anger at Plato and at the City of Glendora, which permitted the firm to build the plant next to a school without requiring an environmental impact report.

On Jan. 13, a recently elected Bonita school board, which had never taken an official stand on the issue, voted unanimously to seek the plant’s closure by whatever means necessary, including legal action against Plato or the city of Glendora.

“The only option is for that plant to be gone,” said board member Sharon Scott, who had originally sought to calm parents’ fears about health risks from Plato.

Against that backdrop, Plato officials began negotiations with the AQMD last week to reach a settlement that involved shutting down its main operations. Plato, which has been in business since 1955, manufactures and metal plates tools such as wire cutters and soldering tips used to assemble electronic equipment.

“They made a decision to relocate (the plating operations at the plant) and they’re glad they made that decision,” company spokesman Neil Rincover said of Plato’s corporate officers. “It was a financial drain. It was an emotional drain. They had to get up every morning and read in the newspapers about what villains they were.”

About 30 of the plant’s 90 employees will be laid off, Rincover said.

Rincover said Plato officials have not decided whether to close the plant entirely or maintain its non-plating operations at the Glendora site.

Restricted Operations

Under the terms of the agreement, Plato may temporarily resume its plating operations except for the nickel-plating equipment responsible for the Jan. 7 leak. The remaining equipment may only be operated at night and on weekends and must be fitted with 17 additional air pollution control devices.

Tuesday’s agreement was the last of several official actions involving Plato since the firm moved to Glendora.

In 1985, investigators with the county Sanitation District found that Plato was discharging contaminated waste water in concentrations that were more than twice the legally permitted level. The firm pleaded no contest to 10 misdemeanor counts of disposing of toxic wastes in county sewers and was fined $27,500 in January, 1987.

Cancer Threat

Plato faced another threat to its existence in Glendora after tests conducted by the air quality district in July indicated that the plant’s pollution control system was reducing the plant’s emissions of hexavalent chromium by only 59%.

The AQMD estimated that, over 70 years, such a concentration of the toxin could be expected to cause 13 to 16 additional cancer cases for each 1 million people exposed. The AQMD prohibits emissions if the increased cancer risk is more than 10 in 1 million.

In September, the AQMD--citing the results of the July study--refused to grant Plato a permit to operate. But the firm finally received a variance to continue operating the plant while it took steps to reduce emissions. And last month, the variance was extended to October so Plato could install a $50,000 filtering system that would reduce the cancer risk to less than one in 1 million.