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GM, Officials Accused of 7 Air Pollution Violations : Paint Vapors Cited at Van Nuys Plant

August 22, 1986|MYRON LEVIN | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles city attorney's office filed a criminal complaint Thursday against General Motors and three officials at its Van Nuys assembly plant, accusing them of seven misdemeanor violations of air pollution regulations.

The complaint alleges that GM last August and September violated South Coast Air Quality Management District regulations limiting emissions of paint vapors and visible smoke. The company also violated a third air-district regulation by running its auto painting lines when a key pollution control device wasn't working, the complaint says.

All seven charges were filed against GM, which manufactures Firebirds and Camaros at the sprawling assembly plant at 8000 Van Nuys Blvd., and against plant manager Ernest D. Schaefer. Dennis Heinemann, director of plant engineering, and environmental engineer Larry Breeding were each charged with a single count.

GM officials said late Thursday that they were unaware of the complaint, filed during the afternoon in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

"We can't comment on the complaint because we're not aware exactly of what the complaint involves," said Harry Kelly, regional public relations manager for GM.

"This all surprises me," said Heinemann, one of the defendants. "I did not know this was happening."

Carry Jail Term, Fine

The seven counts, which were filed under the state Health and Safety Code, all carry maximum penalties of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, according to Deputy City Atty. Gwendolyn Irby. Arraignment is scheduled Sept. 11, Irby said.

The charges were based on citations issued by the air-quality district.

But prosecutors also announced that they would not file criminal charges in connection with 31 other citations issued to GM for odor violations. Prosecutors said odor problems at the plant can better be addressed by the air district through administrative or civil action.

Neighborhood complaints about the odors led the air district to inspect the plant, allegedly leading to discovery of other pollution violations.

The violations are alleged to have taken place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 30, 1985, during the first few weeks of the plant's conversion to a new auto painting process. The process, known as "base coat/clear coat," imparts a lustrous shine, but is much smellier than other painting methods.

Some residents along the northern boundary of the plant said the odor made them ill.

According to the air district, the company and Schaefer violated rules limiting paint vapor emissions on four days, each day appearing as a count in the criminal complaint.

Alleged Smog Contributor

The company is accused of using paints containing excessive amounts of solvents that readily vaporize and contribute to formation of ozone, the irritating gas that is the main component of smog.

The complaint further alleges that, on two days, GM and Schaefer violated district rules limiting the density and duration of visible smoke.

The final count, filed against the company and all three officials, alleges that auto painting was done on a day when an incinerator used to destroy paint vapors was out of service.

The complaint may not be the only air pollution case facing GM. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year cited the company, alleging excessive emissions of smog-producing vapors in its paint process. The federal agency acted after the air district weakened its auto painting rules in an effort to accommodate the new, more-polluting painting system.

The EPA has referred its findings to federal prosecutors.

GM has spent more than $17 million over the last year to deal with the odor problems at the Van Nuys plant. Air-district officials have said the situation is greatly improved, although there occasionally are complaints.

The air district could still seek to levy administrative penalties for the alleged odor violations.

Air-district officials could not be reached for comment.

The criminal action is only the most recent bad news for the Van Nuys plant. Nearly 2,200 of its 5,000 workers were laid off indefinitely last month because of sluggish sales of Firebirds and Camaros.

GM officials have told the federal government that they might close the plant and some others during the next two years unless given some relief from fuel economy standards.

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