IRWINDALE — Residents fighting a proposed $5-million facility that would bring large amounts of radioactive cobalt 60 into the heart of their neighborhood won a major battle this week when the City Council rejected the project as too risky.
The project was killed on a 4-1 vote Monday with most council members saying that even a small risk of an accident that could contaminate the area was too much to accept.
"I am not frightened of the unknown," Councilman Arthur Tapia said. "I just don't trust man. This project should be way out in the desert some place."
Company officials said they might fight the council's rejection of the project.
Councilman Robert Diaz, who cast the lone vote in support of the project, said he believes the company, American Pharmaseal Co., has the necessary expertise to maintain safety at the facility.
'We've Got Children Here'
But few others on the council or in the community seemed convinced. More than 500 residents have signed a petition against the proposal.
"I don't care what precautions they're going to take, they're still going to have problems," said the Rev. Robert Beckstrom of Trinity Lutheran Church in Covina. "If this were an unpopulated area I'd say fine, but we've got children here."
The proposal by American Pharmaseal involved building a house-sized concrete vault on the grounds of its existing 24-acre plant off Irwindale Avenue, near a residential neighborhood that cuts across parts of Irwindale, West Covina and unincorporated county land.
The vault would surround about 22 pounds of cobalt 60, which would be used to sterilize medical supplies such as tubing, catheters and surgical gloves manufactured at the plant.
The supplies are sterilized by moving them on a monorail past the cobalt 60, which emits a dose of gamma radiation powerful enough to kill all bacteria.
The council's decision followed two previous rejections of the project by the Planning Commission and capped a six-month battle between residents and the company.
Residents, who had embarked on a crash course in the effects of radiation to gather data to fight the company, were overjoyed at the council's decision.
But American Pharmaseal's radiation safety manager, Victor D. Kach, said the company has no intention of abandoning the project.
Kach said that without the gamma-radiation sterilizer, the company's growth will be limited and 100 to 200 potential jobs would be lost.
"We have to have that process," he said. "Without it, it's going to be very difficult to operate here and eventually we may have to move."
Plant manager Alex A. Murguia said the company may take the issue to court because the council had approved the project "in concept" two years ago.
"We're going to go back and regroup," he said. "It's not over yet."
Kach said the gamma-irradiation technology has been used for 30 years and that there are 180 similar facilities around the world, including one in Tustin and one in Irvine. American Pharmaseal's only similar facility is in El Paso.
Many opponents of the facility agree that the risk of contamination from the facility would be small.
Six Feet of Concrete
The cobalt 60 would be surrounded by six feet of concrete to absorb nearly all radiation and protect the facility in case of a serious earthquake, Kach said.
He said any radiation that did escape would be barely detectable outside the vault.
In addition, Kach said nearly indestructible metal casks would be used in transporting the cobalt 60 to the plant every 12 to 18 months.
"This is not a monster," he said. "It is not a nuclear reactor and there is no danger of an explosion."
But Kach agreed there is no way to completely eliminate the chance of a freak accident.
"There are risks, but they have been looked at carefully," he said. "Do you get afraid every time you go out on the freeway because there are some risks?"
Kach said there have been three accidents involving similar facilities around the world, including two fatal accidents, one in Norway and the other in Italy. Both were blamed on human error.
Kach said people living near facilities have never been injured in a gamma-irradiator accident.
For opponents of the proposal, the improbability an accident was little assurance.
Denis Mosgofian, director of the San Francisco-based National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation, said even small errors can be dangerous when a facility is in a residential neighborhood.
'When Will It Stop?'
Resident Pauline Acosta, who was born and raised in this small city of 1,000 people, said residents are also tired of increasing intrusion of industrial hazards onto their lives.
"We've had to put up with dust and pollution, now it's radiation. When is it all going to stop?" Acosta said.
"We're just this tiny city that has to put up with it all," she said, adding that residents are also upset about a waste-to-energy facility proposed for the city.
Denise Brooks, who lives next to the plant, said that even if there were no danger, the perception of a risk could lower the value of homes or make them impossible to sell.
"If this went through, we'd probably sell our house," she said. "But who would want to invest in this area?"