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Air Board Refuses to Alter Ruling on Toxic-Gas Firm

September 11, 1987|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

A La Mesa company that manufactures two highly toxic gases has lost its final administrative bid for permission to keep operating, paving the way for San Diego County air quality officials to take steps leading to the firm's closure.

In a hearing that capped months of conflicting testimony over the danger to the community posed by Phoenix Research Corp., members of the county Air Pollution Control District's hearing board on Thursday refused to alter their earlier decision rejecting the company's bid to stay in business.

Phoenix officials have indicated all along that they would challenge a denial of their permit in court, but on Thursday, company attorney Betty-Jane Kirwan declined to speculate on the firm's next move.

"I don't know what we'll do," Kirwan said. "We'll have to consider the effect of all this and then plan a course of action."

District's Next Move

Meanwhile, the deputy director of the Air Pollution Control District said his agency will immediately ask a judge to lift a court injunction that has allowed Phoenix to continue operating pending a decision by the hearing board.

"Then, the company will be subject to whatever enforcement action we deem to be appropriate," said Paul Sidhu, the district's deputy director. He said such action could lead to closure of the plant or might instead prompt the establishment of "corrective measures" by the company to reduce the risk of an accidental release of gas.

"There is a chance that they may have some proposals for minimizing our concerns, but we haven't seen anything convincing yet," Sidhu said.

Phoenix, a subsidiary of Union Carbide, manufactures arsine and phosphine, two colorless, extremely toxic gases used widely in the semiconductor industry. Exposure to as little as 500 parts per million of arsine destroys red blood cells and can be almost instantly lethal.

Phoenix is one of the largest suppliers of the gases in the world and manufactures nearly all of the arsine and phosphine imported by Japan. The company moved from New Jersey to La Mesa in 1973 and has operated quietly and seemingly without serious incident since then. There have been small mishaps, including a fire inside the Alvarado Road plant, but no accidental releases of gas, company officials say.

The company's practices went all but unnoticed until 1985, when publicity brought Phoenix to the attention of regulators and La Mesa officials. Responding to the ensuing public uproar, La Mesa Mayor Fred Nagel asked Union Carbide to relocate the firm, housed in an ordinary-looking warehouse in a busy commercial area not far from hospitals and residential neighborhoods.

'Exploring Options'

Corporate officials agreed to move the controversial outfit before its lease expires in 1991. So far, one relocation attempt to the state of Washington has failed. Phoenix President Randall Kelley said Thursday that the company is "exploring several options" and still plans to move "at our earliest convenience."

"But you don't just pack up and move a business like ours; it takes time," Kelley said, explaining why the company has challenged the district's regulatory efforts and may take the matter to Superior Court.

The Air Pollution Control District entered the debate in December, when staff members concluded that the company had not demonstrated its ability to protect the community in the event of an accidental release of gas. When district officials attempted to close the plant, Phoenix sued, arguing that the agency lacks jurisdiction because the company does not emit measurable levels of pollutants into the air.

A Superior Court judge ruled against Phoenix in January but issued an injunction that allowed the firm to stay open until an appeal was heard by the district's board. Last month, the board refused to grant the company a permit, and two of its three members--Chairwoman Laura Engelberg and Eric Grant--expressed horror that a toxic gas maker was allowed to operate in a congested suburb for 14 years. The third member, F.A.M. Buck, sided with Phoenix, saying he believed the company could operate safely under certain conditions.

On Thursday, board members stood firm on their positions, likely sounding a death knell for Phoenix unless the company presses and wins a challenge in court.

Officials in La Mesa, meanwhile, said they continue to look forward to the day Phoenix leaves their city, but plan no separate legal action to speed up the move.

"The city has done everything it can to encourage Phoenix to expedite their move and we feel they've really tried to do that," City Manager Ron Bradley said. "We're still confident that they will be leaving the city as they promised."

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