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Health Concerns Cited at Metal-Plating Firm : County Launches Investigation at Plant

July 05, 1987|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

A series of miscarriages among women living near a Glendora metal-plating firm has sparked a county investigation and rekindled demands from residents that the plant be shut down.

Three women living on the 700 block of Groveton Avenue in San Dimas, which stands about 100 yards across the city line from Plato Products Inc., have reported six miscarriages in the last two years, according to officials for the county Department of Health Services.

Three of the miscarriages came this year within a month, from mid-May to mid-June, the women said in interviews.

"If (the plant) is the cause . . . then they've jeopardized our health, our emotions and our investments," said Jan Davis, 34, who last month had her third miscarriage while living on Groveton Avenue. "It shouldn't happen. It's not fair."

Officials for the company, at 2120 Allen Ave., did not return phone calls.

Although county health officials stressed that a direct connection between the miscarriages and the Plato plant would be difficult to prove, an investigation has been launched to see whether other women in the vicinity have had similar prenatal difficulties.

Additionally, health officials said they will seek evidence of any other health problems, such as headaches or nausea, that could be connected to Plato's metal-plating operation.

"I'm suspicious enough that I want to see it investigated," said Paul Papanek, chief of the health department's toxics and epidemiology program.

"Less for the miscarriage problem," he added, "only because I know how hard it is to settle those questions definitively. . . . But my suspicions are quite high that we have a nuisance, odor and irritation problem in the area."

The firm, which is also next to Arma J. Shull Elementary School in San Dimas, has been under fire from neighbors since it moved from El Monte to its current site in 1984.

Led by the Concerned Citizens Committee, made up of parents, residents began complaining two years ago that chemical smells from the plant were endangering the 500 grade-school students nearby.

Although tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District found no evidence that toxic fumes were being released, the air quality district did order Plato to upgrade its air pollution control equipment, according to AQMD officials.

In addition, officials said, Plato agreed voluntarily to improve several warning mechanisms designed to reduce the chance of an accident.

Meanwhile, the citizens group persisted and, with the support of San Dimas city officials, persuaded the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office to call for an investigation in November, 1985.

Conducted by the county Sanitation Districts, the investigation concluded that the company was discharging metal-contaminated waste water in concentrations two to three times greater than permitted under county law.

A Los Angeles Municipal Court judge fined Plato $27,500 last January after the firm pleaded no contest to 10 misdemeanor counts of dumping the toxic waste into county sewers.

Originally, a 20-count complaint had been filed against the company and four top officers. However, prosecutors agreed to drop 10 of the counts against Plato and all of the charges against the individuals in exchange for the no contest plea, which is tantamount to a guilty plea but is not admissible in certain types of subsequent civil litigation.

A follow-up inspection in May by the Sanitation Districts revealed that the firm was discharging chromium-tainted waste that exceeded federal limits by about 16%. Agency officials said Plato would be served with a verbal warning.

"They're not perfect," said Scott Austin, a project engineer for the Sanitation Districts. "But they are doing much better. They're very close to being in compliance."

Residents, however, have continued to charge that the Glendora plant is dangerous and should never have been placed so close to the San Dimas school and surrounding residential neighborhood.

"I don't believe that facility belongs there--controls or no controls," said Jeff Schenkel, who formed the Concerned Citizens Committee two years ago. "That's my bottom line. It's just inappropriate."

After learning about the miscarriages, Schenkel notified health officials and asked them to look into the problem. In response, Papanek met two weeks ago with Renee Shinton, 24, and Lisa Kopanke, 31, the other two women on the block who have miscarried. All three women have lived in the neighborhood since the plant began operating there.

Besides having to find a causal relationship, Papanek said, the investigation is hampered by the fact that an estimated 10% to 40% of women miscarry under normal circumstances. As a result, he said, it is difficult to say how many miscarriages should be considered too many.

"If it's only three women, it could easily be a coincidence," Papanek said. "If it really seems high, though, we'd have to say: 'Hey, something's going on here.' "

However, because some of the women and other residents have complained about odors and other health problems, Papanek said he was more optimistic that evidence could be compiled to mark the plant as a public nuisance.

"If it's a nuisance, if it bothers people, if it makes them feel sick," he said, "it's a public health problem."

Meanwhile, Schenkel said he wants to pressure Glendora city officials into forcing the plant out of business. "It just has no business next to a school or a residential area," he said.

But Keene Wilson, an assistant to Glendora's city manager, said the city will not take any action unless county regulatory agencies determine that a health hazard exists.

The one-acre site where Plato operates is zoned for manufacturing, Keene said.

"If a business comes in and meets the zoning, we would have no reason not to allow them," he said. "You don't start out with the assumption that they're hazardous just because they're an industry."

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