Air-quality officials have canceled a hearing on odor emissions from the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, partly because they expect a massive layoff planned in June to reduce paint fumes--and the complaints they draw--from the giant plant.
Jim Birakos, deputy executive officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said a hearing scheduled next Tuesday has been called off to see whether the layoff and further corrective steps by GM will solve the problem.
Birakos said GM will again be called before the air district's board if odor problems persist.
On Tuesday, GM officials announced that all 2,190 workers on the plant's second shift will be laid off indefinitely on June 9 because of slow sales of Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds assembled at 8000 Van Nuys Blvd.
Birakos noted that most of the odor complaints have come in the late afternoon or early evening, during the second shift.
But Sandra Brown, an outspoken GM critic who lives on Lorne Street just north of the plant, said she is upset that the hearing has been called off. She said it would have provided a chance to "vent some of our anger and opinions."
Any relief that may stem from the layoff will not come until June, Brown pointed out. Moreover, she said, recent odor reductions may be a transitory effect of prevailing winds, which she said blow away from her neighborhood in winter and toward it in summer.
Since late last August, the air district has cited the plant 40 times for offensive odors or other violations associated with GM's conversion last summer to a new auto-painting system. The most recent violation notice was issued a month ago.
Ernie Schaefer, GM plant manager, agreed that painting cars only early in the day should cut down on complaints, but said the layoff announcement was in no way prompted by those complaints.
Additional changes in the painting operation should also help, Schaefer said. One improvement he cited will involve burning vapors from one area of the plant where fumes now are emitted directly into the air.
Most of the violation notices issued by the air district are punishable by civil fines of up to $6,000, but district officials have referred the citations to the Los Angeles city attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution. City prosecutors have not said whether they intend to take GM to court.
The controversy erupted late last summer when GM switched to a new paint process, known as "base coat / clear coat," that imparts a lustrous shine but has a stronger smell than previously used paints. Some of the plant's closest neighbors said the pungent odors made them sick, and the air district has issued a citation each time complaints of bothersome odors have been verified by a district inspector.
Headaches, Nausea Reported
Some of the residents have complained of headaches and nausea from the odors, although GM and health officials say chemical emissions from the paint are too weak to cause any health problems.
Under a series of negotiated agreements with the air-district staff, GM has tried a series of corrective measures that it says have cost about $17.5 million. These have included installing burners to incinerate paint fumes, raising rooftop vent stacks to disperse odors and reformulating paints.
Tuesday's hearing was to have been the latest in a series in which nearby residents and representatives of the company and air-district staff have trooped before the air-district hearing board to debate the success of these moves.
GM and air-district officials say the paint odors have been reduced in frequency and intensity. "I don't feel it is of a magnitude that's very offensive," Schaefer said.
Schaefer said the car surfaces painted at the plant each day are "equivalent to 25 football fields," so "there always will" be some odor immediately downwind.