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Toxic-Gas Plant Gives In; Will Leave La Mesa : Letter to Mayor Pledges Exit as Soon as Possible

January 24, 1986|JANNY SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

LA MESA — Union Carbide, the multinational chemical firm that owns and operates a toxic-gas manufacturing plant here, has bowed to a request from Mayor Fred Nagel that it move the plant, Phoenix Research Corp., out of the city as soon as possible.

In a letter that a company spokesman said was written Monday, Union Carbide President H.F. Tomfohrde III informed Nagel that Phoenix is looking for new quarters and hopes to move to "a more suitable location" before its lease in La Mesa expires.

"While Phoenix Research has operated at its present site for 12 years without incident, we believe that a more suitable location can be found, and we have requested Phoenix Research to move its facility at the earliest possible date," Tomfohrde wrote, according to company spokesman Victor Chase.

The letter did not indicate when or where Phoenix might relocate. However, it said that the company must also consider its 20 workers and its clients.

"I just couldn't be happier," said Nagel, who wrote to Tomfohrde on Jan. 13 after an article in The Times prompted a petition drive by La Mesa residents demanding that Phoenix close. "We didn't expect this kind of reply. I figured the worst, that they would say, 'It's an investment, we need a return, and we'll stay until it's acceptable for us to leave.' "

Phoenix Research is one of only a handful of firms nationwide that manufacture arsine and phosphine gas, two extraordinarily toxic chemicals used in the semiconductor industry. Top city officials admitted last year that they had been ignorant of the plant's stock in trade during 12 years of its operation.

Exposure to as little as 500 parts per million of arsine is almost instantly lethal, since the gas destroys the blood's ability to absorb oxygen. Phoenix officials say there have been no leaks at the plant, which is in a commercial area beside Fletcher Parkway and near Interstate 8.

Victor Chase, a spokesman for Union Carbide's Linde Division, which bought Phoenix in 1983, said Thursday that Tomfohrde's letter said: "Phoenix Research is now investigating alternate sites for its operation and is hopeful that a building can be located or constructed in a more suitable location in advance of the 1991 expiration of its lease."

Chase said he could not recall another occasion on which the giant company had moved a long-established plant at the request of a municipality. The action comes seven weeks after La Mesa residents began petitioning the company to move from its plant at 8075 Alvarado Road.

The petition drive began after The Times described how Phoenix had operated almost unnoticed in La Mesa until a worker made an anonymous call to the city after the disastrous toxic-chemical leak in Bhopal, India, in December, 1984. Top city administrators and planning and building officials conceded they had known little or nothing about Phoenix.

Even the city Fire Department, inspecting Phoenix twice a year, had no detailed emergency plan. County health officials and state occupational safety officials had had few dealings with Phoenix, despite a web of laws and agencies designed to monitor toxic substances.

Nagel, who said he was elated by Union Carbide's decision, said he had been preparing to write a second letter to Tomfohrde concerning the apparent inability of emergency services to cope with the consequences of a leak or explosion at Phoenix.

"I was not aware that it would require a complete blood change," Nagel said, referring to the total blood transfusions used in treating severe arsine poisoning. "What if a hundred people were exposed? And the different blood types that are required, and the speed? Impossible. A plant of that nature does not belong anywhere near a residential area."

Phoenix moved to La Mesa in 1973, leaving New Jersey to be near its clients in Southern California, according to President Randall Kelley. City records indicate that Phoenix filed a business license application to do "research and development" and moved into an existing building without needing the Planning Department's approval.

Since then, according to Kelley, output has doubled--though he insisted that he could not say just how much gas the plant has produced. He has said it never generates more than 12 pounds of arsine gas at a time, selling it in concentrations diluted up to 15%.

Kelley has said in the past that there have been no accidental releases of either gas at the plant, and only one "mild-acute" exposure of a worker about five years ago. Fire Department officials and others have described Kelley as very cooperative, and as a specialist to whom they have turned for advice on emergencies elsewhere.

Kelley could not be reached Thursday for comment. His secretary said he was out of town and not expected back until next week.

"I think the fact that they have decided maybe they will move in the very near future will be an overall benefit to the community," said Gerard Lafreniere, the La Mesa Fire Department battalion chief who oversaw inspections at the plant.

"I would think if you were to canvas the members of the department, they would say, 'That's great,' " Lafreniere said. "They're not going to be sorry by any means."

Nagel said word of Union Carbide's decision took him by surprise. But Dr. Joseph LaDou, acting chief of the division of occupational environmental medicine at UC San Francisco and an expert on toxic gases used in the semiconductor industry, suggested that Phoenix may have felt the pinch of rising insurance rates.

"You can bet they're getting pressure from more than the mayor," said LaDou, who has closely observed electronics firms in Silicon Valley. "My suspicion is they're responding to economic pressures, usually applied through environmental insurance and general liability."

La Mesa is a quiet bedroom community of 52,000, with little industry. City officials intend to ban all industries handling toxic gases.

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