New Industry Curbs Studied as Plato Agrees to Shutdown

Times Staff Writer

In the latest repercussion from a Jan. 7 acid leak at a Glendora metal-plating plant, the City Council this week voted to have planners consider placing a moratorium on metal-plating facilities and restrictions on the location of other businesses that use toxic chemicals.

The council resolution, approved unanimously Tuesday, was one of a series of developments in the wake of the leak three weeks ago at Plato Products Inc. Earlier Tuesday, Plato officials agreed to cease all plating operations at the facility by Sept. 1.

On Jan. 7, pungent vapors from acetic acid--a highly concentrated form of vinegar used in Plato's nickel-plating process--escaped from the plant and drifted over neighboring Arma J. Shull elementary school, across the city limits in San Dimas.

Children Became Ill

Between 90 and 100 schoolchildren became ill as a result of exposure to the acid, and 11 missed school the next day, said Paul Papanek, director of the toxics and epidemiology program for the county Department of Health Services.

Papanek's findings, released Monday, were drawn from the results of a survey distributed to parents of all 560 children at Shull School by Bonita school board member Sharon Scott. Papanek said the survey, returned by 76% of the parents, clearly indicated that vapors from the plant had caused eye and throat irritation, headaches and nausea among a large number of children.

The symptoms were "mild and transient, but still a definite health impact," Papanek said. "I think it's an inescapable conclusion that it was the result of the acetic acid exposure."

Scott and Bonita school board President Biff Green had planned to use Papanek's findings to persuade the Glendora City Council to take action to close the plant. Earlier, the two board members had criticized the city for allowing Plato to move to Glendora in 1984 without requiring an environmental impact report.

Agreement Reached

But action to seek the plant's closure became unnecessary after Plato and the South Coast Air Quality Management District reached an agreement to restrict metal-plating activities at the plant for seven months, then completely shut down the plating operation.

In meetings with Glendora officials Monday and Tuesday, Green and Scott pressed for assurances that the city would take steps to prevent other firms using toxic chemicals from setting up shop near the school.

City Councilman Len Martyns urged fellow council members to establish more stringent standards for the types of businesses that may locate in the industrial area in the city's southeast corner.

"The city should institute a limited moratorium on new industrial development uses such as electroplating," Martyns said. He directed the city staff to prepare such an ordinance for the council to consider at its Feb. 9 meeting.

Martyns also called for a detailed study and environmental review of industrial development in the area near the school to determine whether the city's General Plan adequately protects residents' health. Such a study, including public hearings, would take six to nine months, according to City Atty. Cheryl Kane.

Because Martyns' recommendations were not official agenda items, the council could not take specific action. However, it unanimously approved a resolution stating that the city "commits itself to expeditiously study and implement appropriate land uses and zoning for future industrial development in the vicinity of Shull School."

Green and Scott told the council that they were satisfied with the city's efforts. Acting Bonita Supt. Mitchell Gilbert, who had written the city last week requesting that the council look into the matter, concurred.

"When presented with the facts, the Glendora City Council was in full accord with our efforts," Gilbert said. "It shows that they're anxious to be good neighbors and that they're concerned with the health and welfare of our children."

In another Tuesday night meeting, the San Dimas City Council also approved a resolution pledging support for the Bonita school district's efforts to close the plant. Council members praised the school board, the AQMD and San Dimas resident Jeff Schenkel, who has fought the plant for four years, for their contributions to the agreement with Plato.

Although, the matter seemed to have been resolved before the San Dimas City Council voted, Councilman Terry Dipple said the city should be ready to assist the school district if any further problems with Plato arise.

"The main things I'm concerned with is what if the agreement should come apart or if there are any violations between now and Sept. 1," Dipple said. "The school district has been handling the brunt of the responsibility, and I thought the city should take a more aggressive stand in protecting in the health of our citizens."

Copies of the agreement between Plato, the AQMD and the Bonita school district were distributed at both city council meetings. Parents of children at Shull School were pleased with what they read.

"(The agreement) makes us a lot happier, as long as they do what they say," said parent Howard Van Veghten, who lives across the street from the plant. "I'll be happy as long as they're gone by Sept. 1."

Under the terms of the agreement, Plato may resume all of its plating operations except the nickel plating that was responsible for the acetic acid leak.

However, the firm must first adopt 17 new air pollution control measures, such as raising the height of its smokestack to 47 feet and installing an alarm that would alert the AQMD by telephone if any of its filtering equipment malfunctioned.

Plato is also prohibited from engaging in metal plating during school hours or when the school's playground is being used for recreational activities.

If the company violates any part of the agreement, it will be subject to contempt-of-court charges and will also be fined $10,000 for the Jan. 7 incident.

Plato spokesman Neil Rincover said the company agreed to the settlement in part to improve relations with the public for the remainder of the time it conducts metal-plating at the plant.

"Part of the reason for the agreement--basically giving in and shutting down--is to calm fears in the community," Rincover said, adding that Plato officials "don't want to be perceived as villains."

However, residents at Tuesday's meeting said they remain wary of the plant.

"We're cautiously optimistic at this point," said Schenkel.

Rincover said the company has not decided whether to close the plant entirely after Sept. 1. Initially, Plato officials planned to continue manufacturing tools at the Glendora plant and do their plating work elsewhere, but they are now reconsidering, he said.

"It just seems when you sit right down and think about it that it would be very difficult to run it as two separate operations," Rincover said.

Van Veghten said property values in the area will increase when Plato ceases metal-plating. However, he said he hopes no permanent damage has been caused by the plant's emissions.

"I'm still worried about what might happen to my son in 10 or 20 years," he said, adding that the agreement to cease metal plating "still might be too little, too late."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World