Toxic Neighbors : Measure Would Force Metal Platers Out of Residential Areas

Times Staff Writer

It took Carlos Simentel 28 years of hard work to rise from apprentice to owner of a dingy metal plating shop nestled within a low-income residential neighborhood in Lincoln Heights.

Behind the grimy brick walls of his Nu-Way Plating Co., 65 employees labor over steaming vats of blue, green and orange solutions laced with toxic cyanide and heavy metals used to give car wheels and bumpers gleaming coats of copper, nickel and chrome.

“Everything I have is tied up in this shop,” said Simentel, 51, as employees wearing protective face masks, rubber gloves and high rubber boots dipped car wheels into and out of foamy chemical baths. “I just want to retire with dignity and not hurt anybody.”


But because some officials worry that Simentel’s business could hurt his neighbors, he may have to retire sooner than he thought.

Under a proposed ordinance authored by City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, Nu-Way Plating and about 250 other metal plating shops scattered throughout Los Angeles, most of them family-owned, would be forced to relocate within five years to areas zoned for heavy industry.

Molina and others--including people who live near such shops--say the measure is needed to eliminate the potential for a major disaster, noting that many of these firms are located in residential areas and near schools or hospitals.

But industry insiders say the proposal would wipe out scores of businesses and threaten many of the estimated 4,000 mostly unskilled jobs they provide in economically depressed areas.

It was drafted in the emotional aftermath of a May 23, 1988, fire at Builder’s Hardware Finisher’s Inc. in Lincoln Heights, which forced the evacuation of 10,000 people after fire officials realized that cyanide and sulfuric acid at the site could mix and create a toxic cloud.

The fire shattered a sense of security that had existed for years in the South and East Los Angeles neighborhoods where many metal plating operations have settled over the last 50 years. In some cases, the businesses were there first and homes built around them.

“This is no place for that kind of work,” said Refuguio Mercado, 74, who owns an old wood-paneled home across the street from the blackened ruins of Builder’s Hardware and less than a block away from Nu-Way Plating. “We never knew they were dangerous until the fire.”

A Community Development Department survey of metal plating firms located east of downtown Los Angeles revealed that the industry’s work force is 80% Latino, 10% black and overwhelmingly male. The average wage is $6.28 per hour, although some platers earn $11 per hour or more.

“Councilwoman Molina’s proposals are trying to mitigate a threat to the community,” said Veronica Gutierrez, a spokesman for Molina. “The councilwoman believes that if it comes down to saving jobs or saving lives, she’ll have no choice but to favor the latter.”

“We don’t want to lose jobs,” added Jerry Hertzberg, Molina’s chief legislative deputy, “and we’ve invited suggestions from the industry, Fire Department and others on the best possible way to achieve safety in the community without threatening jobs. . . . But nobody can tell us a better way.”

Harry Levy, owner of Gene’s Plating Works in Boyle Heights and a spokesman for the Metal Finishers Assn. of Southern California, said many metal plating shops are run on shoestring budgets and could not afford to move without financial assistance.

As it stands, the proposal offers no such help.

Levy argued that the industry is already exhaustively regulated by a host of agencies, including the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Los Angeles County health department, the Los Angeles Board of Public Works and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

In addition, Levy said, a recent survey by his association showed that there is not enough available space in the city’s M-3 zones to accommodate all of the shops that would have to move.

Approved uses for M-3 zones include ammunition manufacturing, radioactive waste material handling, petroleum pumping and dead animal dumping.

Measure Assailed

“Molina’s bill is ill-advised, ill-researched, unworkable and possibly unconstitutional,” Levy said. “Our industry has been one of the backbones in the East Los Angeles area for a long time. We have provided livelihoods for a large number of families as well as an important service to industry.”

In an effort to ease the shock, Molina’s staff is helping city Planning Department officials develop an alternative proposal that would offer conditional use permits to existing metal plating shops able to meet certain health and safety requirements.

Both measures will be presented to the Los Angeles Planning Commission in October and the City Council after that, said Patti Ialongo, a city planner studying the viability of the ordinances.

“Right now, these guys are permitted in light industry zones, which is absurd,” Ialongo said. “These zones are found next to residential areas, which is why we want them out.”

Should either ordinance be approved by the City Council, Simentel figures his shop, which is adjacent to homes and is on probation for discharging excessive amounts of cyanide and heavy metals into city sewers, will be among the first to fold.

“What has to be done, has to be done,” Simentel said. “But it would kill this business if I have to move, unless the city provides me with financial assistance.”

Preparing for the worst, Simentel has already applied for a permit to start a similar operation in Tijuana, Mexico, as part of an effort to salvage his business and its equipment, some of which he designed and built by hand.

Less Business

“We’ll try to move some of this equipment, much of which is old, and try to make it work in Tijuana,” he said. “But in Mexico, we’ll only be able to do 40% of the business we are doing now.”

Josie Diaz, 56, who lives next door, said the firm would not be missed. Noxious fumes wafting out of Simentel’s building made her keep her kitchen window closed for years.

“I just want it moved someplace where it won’t do any harm,” Diaz said.

Paul Papanek, a toxicologist with the Los Angeles health department, said it is very difficult to make metal plating operations entirely safe, regardless of where they are located, because of the chemical processes they use.

Typically, products ranging from car bumpers and belt buckles to bird cages and ferrules for paint brushes are immersed in large vats containing acidic solutions of heavy metals, which impart a protective film of chrome or another metal. After a period of time in the chemical bath, the parts are rinsed and left to dry.

The process generates large amounts of waste water containing hazardous chemicals, which are usually treated to render them harmless and then discharged into the city sewer system.

“The exposure to metals and acid vapors are, in my experience, often uncontrolled and represent a health hazard to thousands of workers,” Papanek said. In addition, most plating shops maintain a tank of cyanide on the premises, and that “is always something of a worry,” he said.

Temptations to Cut Corners

Ed Avila, president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, which monitors discharge of hazardous materials in the sewer system, said the fact that many plating operations are small makes them prone to “cutting corners in terms of trying to save money.”

“Platers come before the board regularly for discharge violations,” Avila said. “We have no mercy for those who illegally discharge. We’ll shut them down.”

Some cases have been referred to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for criminal prosecution.

In June, two brothers who operated a North Hollywood firm called All American Plating Co. were accused of recklessly handling and storing thousands of gallons of cyanide waste and other hazardous materials.

Deputy Dist. Atty. William W. Carter said the company also dumped cyanide into the Los Angeles sewer system, and that open and unlabeled tanks of acid were stored so closely that an accidental mixture could have formed a toxic cloud.

All American’s former owner and president, Yoav (Joe) Pantilant, 52, of Woodland Hills--who sold the business in June--and Sarv (Tom) Pantilant, 45, of Saugus, who was the firm’s general manager, each face one felony count of reckless handling and storage of hazardous materials, seven misdemeanor counts of illegal storage of hazardous materials and one misdemeanor count of illegally discharging into the sewer system.

The brothers could face up to three years in prison and $100,000 in fines if convicted of the felony.

“A substantial portion of our work involves the investigation and prosecution of metal plating businesses for a number of reasons,” said Carter, a prosecutor in a division handling environmental crimes in Los Angeles. “We’ve filed felony and misdemeanor charges against 50 metal plating shops in the last four years.”