Executives Say Trouble With School 'Never Occurred to Us' : P.R. Called Plato's Biggest Problem

Times Staff Writer

As employees at Plato Products Inc. installed new air pollution control devices on the plant's metal-plating equipment last week, company President George Kent paused to reflect on the firm's recent travails.

The problems probably began in 1966, when Kent and partner Bill Eldred bought a 4.6-acre site along the Glendora-San Dimas boundary. The land was to become the home of the tool manufacturing enterprise the two men had founded in El Monte in 1954. But the location had a serious flaw.

"It never occurred to us that we would have any problems being next to a school," Kent said.

But being next to Arma J. Shull Elementary School caused a succession of problems after Plato moved to Glendora in 1984. Parents steadfastly opposed the plant, arguing that emissions from its metal-plating operations posed a health threat to their children.

Opposition reached its peak after a Jan. 7 incident in which acetic acid fumes escaped from the plant's plating room and caused as many as 100 students to become ill. Six days later, the South Coast Air Quality District ordered all plating at the plant stopped.

After two rancorous public meetings at which parents called on various public agencies to try to shut down the plant, Kent and Eldred voluntarily agreed to move Plato's plating operations by Sept. 1.

In an interview Thursday, Kent, 67, and Eldred, 60, both argued that Plato's biggest problem has been public relations, not toxic emissions.

Despite findings by health and air quality officials that the plant did not pose a significant hazard to residents or school children, community fears persisted.

"Our consistent position has been to rely on the public agencies, and it was our hope that the facts would speak for themselves," Kent said. "We felt that should have allayed the fears."

Residents' fears were also prompted by a series of investigations and actions against Plato.

In 1985, the county Sanitation Districts found that the firm was discharging contaminated waste water at twice the legal concentration. Plato pleaded no contest to 10 misdemeanor counts of disposing of toxic wastes in county sewers and was fined $27,500.

Last summer, tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Plato's air pollution control system was reducing emissions of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, by only 59%. The AQMD estimated that such a concentration would cause 13 to 16 cancer cases per million people exposed at the point of maximum impact.

AQMD requires that carcinogenic emissions have a risk factor of less than one in a million, though 10 in a million is permissible if the company involved is using the best available pollution control technology.

Plato was given a variance to continue operating in September after it agreed to raise its smokestack, lowering the cancer risk to 10 in a million. In December, the variance was extended 10 months while the firm submitted plans to install a $50,000 filtering system to trap 99.5% of the contaminants and bring the cancer risk down to below one in a million.

Kent said he and his partner have always tried to be "responsible corporate citizens." He stressed that whenever the AQMD has sought additional pollution controls for the plant, Plato has responded.

Edward Camarena, the AQMD's deputy executive officer for operations, concurred that Plato has, by and large, acted responsibly.

"One would have to say they made a concerted effort to cooperate with our requirements," Camarena said.

Camarena, who formerly was in charge of enforcement for the AQMD, said he did not recall that Plato had significant problems in El Monte. The company's problems over the past four years, including the acetic acid leak, have been almost entirely related to its location, he said.

"I don't know what they could have done to prevent the incident of Jan. 7, and that accident is what really turned community sentiment against them," Camarena said. "I do believe an operation such as that is not appropriate next to a residential area or a school."

Kent said attorneys advised him to continue the legal fight for Plato to remain in Glendora, but he decided that moving the plant's plating operations was the best strategy.

"I would rather spend $100,000 on equipment that makes jobs for people than spend it on legal fees," he said.

Kent said Plato's problems should offer a lesson to other business owners.

"I think all industrialists are going to have to be more concerned with community relations and public relations," he said.

In an attempt to improve the company's image, Plato last week hired public relations consultant Neil Rincover.

Since then, the firm has allowed reporters and photographers to tour the plant, and the company's officers--who had previously refused to comment--have made themselves available for interviews.

The owners of Plato, Rincover said, have been unfairly accused of skirting air quality regulations without regard to the health of those living near the plant. Rincover said this image was largely created by negative publicity, most of it generated by Jeff Schenkel, who led parents' opposition to the plant.

"The cumulative effect of three years of (newspaper) stories, three years of covering just one gadfly, is to give the community an easy target," Rincover said. "It's so hard to change an impression like that."

Rincover also acknowledged that the reticence of Kent and Eldred did nothing to change the public's perception of Plato as an impersonal corporation.

Bonita school board member Sharon Scott, who led the school district's efforts to close the plant after the Jan. 7 incident, said Plato could have dealt with the public better.

Plato should have responded quickly to complaints about odors from the plant and held informational meetings on their operations "instead of clamming up like they wished the public would just go away," she said.

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