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Beleaguered Maker of Deadly Gases to Quit La Mesa for Secret Site

Times Staff Writer

Phoenix Research Corp., which manufactures deadly arsine and phosphine gases for the semiconductor industry, will leave its La Mesa plant by the end of 1989 for an undisclosed site out of state.

The announcement, made Tuesday night by Phoenix President Randall Kelley at a community forum, drew sighs of relief Wednesday from La Mesa city officials and air-pollution regulators, who have been trying since late 1985 to force the toxic-gas producer from its nondescript offices at 8075 Alvarado Road.

But the news was met with skepticism by one environmentalist, who discounted the company’s announcement because Phoenix officials have declined to say where they will relocate.

“They weren’t willing to disclose the location of that future site, and they weren’t going to disclose the specifics about it,” said Diane Takvorian, director of the Environmental Health Coalition. “As far as we’re concerned, . . . the proposal doesn’t exist until we get some specifics.”

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Although the company’s announcement was cause for some joy, it also touched off a round of finger-pointing Wednesday between La Mesa officials and representatives of the San Diego Air Pollution Control District over who was to blame for allowing the plant to operate unhindered since it was first disclosed more than two years ago that Phoenix produced two of the most deadly gases known.

“Phoenix Research should have moved right after we found out about the danger of the product they were producing,” said La Mesa City Councilman Art Madrid, who characterized the company’s announcement as “too little, too late.”

“Unfortunately, the delay is a bureaucratic disaster, simply because the city of La Mesa sought additional relief from other local and state agencies to move aggressively, and that relief was not forthcoming,” he said.

The Times disclosed in November, 1985, that the plant, in a commercial center, was manufacturing highly toxic arsine and phosphine. Before the disclosure, the Union Carbide subsidiary had operated in relative obscurity since 1973, when it moved from New Jersey to be closer to its Southern California semiconductor clients.

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Production on Demand

Phoenix produces the gases on demand in batches that amount to 60 cubic feet of arsine and 250 cubic feet of phosphine, Kelley said. The gases are used to alter the electrical characteristics of silicon and similar materials.

Federal limits for exposure to the gases are very minimal--0.3 parts per million for phosphine and 0.05 ppm for arsine. A whiff of 500 ppm of arsine would cause instant death because that concentration would freeze the hemoglobin in the body’s red blood cells.

The initial disclosure about the Phoenix plant triggered an outcry from La Mesa residents and city officials, who demanded that the firm leave town.

Relocation loomed as a possibility until March, 1987, when Union Carbide abandoned efforts to move Phoenix to Washougal, Wash., because of an unfavorable business climate there. But the chemical company promised to leave La Mesa before January, 1991, when its lease on Alvarado Road expires.

On Tuesday, however, Kelley disclosed that the company will leave its La Mesa home no later than December, 1989. His announcement came during an evening forum at the Maryland Avenue Elementary School, where more than 150 neighborhood residents came to hear an update on Phoenix.

Committed to Leaving

“We will cease operations here on or about the end of the year,” Kelley said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s the target, and we’re committed to that.

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“We wish not to be here, either,” Kelley said about the plant’s La Mesa location. “A lot of people say we want to be here. We believe this is not an appropriate place for this facility to be.

“You look around here and there’s two big motels, for instance,” Kelley said. “This is not a place we want to be.”

Despite the misgivings, the company has waged an administrative and legal battle to keep operating in La Mesa.

In 1986, the air-pollution control district ordered the company to close because it was found to be a gas-production facility operating without a valid permit. The order to close was made, in part, because of the health hazard posed by a potential leak of arsine or phosphine.

But Phoenix officials, contending that the company is exempt from such regulations because it is a research laboratory, fended off the order by obtaining a court injunction in January, 1987, against the air-pollution district.

Paul Sidhu, the district’s deputy director, said Wednesday that the injunction has tied the regulatory agency’s hands, leaving the plant to conduct business as usual. He said the regulatory agency is considering the company’s offer to break the administrative and legal stalemate by installing a $300,000 “scrubber” to catch arsine and phosphine before it escapes into the atmosphere outside the plant in the event of an accident.

“Our position is that, if they can demonstrate to us that they meet our requirements, then we will allow them to install the controls and issue a permit,” Sidhu said.

Sidhu pointed out that La Mesa could have taken steps of its own to shut Phoenix, especially because the city has declined to issue a business permit to the company since 1984.

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La Mesa Action Urged

“If the city has remedies available to it, it should use those remedies,” Sidhu said.

On Wednesday, La Mesa officials confirmed they have refused to issue business licenses to Phoenix but said it was a legal tactic to prevent the firm from coming back in a potential lawsuit and using the licenses to argue that city officials were giving tacit approval for the gas production. They said the licenses are used to impose taxes, not to regulate businesses.

Mayor Fred Nagel said, “The city has not failed, and the city has been very aggressive, including myself, in trying to find a solution to this problem without having to resort to the power of eminent domain, which might be quite expensive.”

Nagel blamed the air-pollution control district for failing to shut down Phoenix, leaving the city to deal with the gas producer using only building and fire codes.

“What we’ve tried to do, while the Air Pollution Control District has been fumbling around with this problem, is make sure that there are safety measures in place,” Nagel said. “We discovered they didn’t even have a night watchman. All they did on Friday was lock the door. We said, ‘No, you need someone there 24 hours and seven days a week.’ ”

Ordinance Unused

La Mesa Planning Director Dave Wear, however, said Wednesday that the city has not used an ordinance enacted in December, 1986, that gave the council power to declare Phoenix a potential health and safety hazard and make it move.

The ordinance pertains to so-called “non-conforming uses,” businesses that are operating on property zoned for other kinds of activities. Phoenix, for instance, manufactures the gases in a building that is zoned for strict commercial activity, such as selling merchandise.

The zoning change was made on Phoenix’s property after it began manufacturing the gas, so the company has been “grandfathered” in and protected. But the new ordinance would have given Wear the power to make Phoenix apply for a special permit and forced the city to hold hearings about the potential health hazard. If found to be a hazard, the company could have been told to fix up its plant or move, he said.

Wear said he declined to use his power and begin the hearing process because he was relying on the air-pollution district to take the lead. Duplicating that agency’s efforts would have been too expensive, he said.

No Political Outcries

“There haven’t been any political cries from the public or the council to do anything,” Wear said. “There seemed to be general satisfaction that they (Phoenix) were leaving and they were making modifications to their building.”

Word that the city could have done more to make Phoenix move angered some council members, who said they will demand an explanation from staff members at the council’s next meeting Tuesday.

“I’m angry. I’m frustrated,” said Councilman Ernest Ewin, who added that he had been assured by the city staff that the city had exhausted all the avenues to shut Phoenix. “I’m going to be pushing pretty hard (for explanations).

“I want to make sure that once and for all . . . if there are options remaining to us, that we take them, whatever it takes to get this situation abated permanently.”


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