The hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District has granted a temporary variance to Plato Products Inc. of Glendora, giving the embattled metal-plating firm 90 days to develop adequate air pollution control equipment or face closure.
In the meantime, the company, which earlier this month was denied operating permits by the air quality district because of excessive carcinogenic emissions, will be required to erect a smokestack 38 feet above ground level to help disperse the toxic vapors.
"It's always been my policy not to put someone out of business if you can get them in compliance," board member Jack C. Dutton said Thursday at a public hearing at Ontario City Hall.
"I think they should be given the opportunity to do so," agreed Coralie Kupfer, chairman of the five-member quasi-judicial commission that serves as an appeal board on AQMD decisions.
Officials for Plato, which has been under fire from neighbors for a range of health-related complaints ever since it moved to Glendora in 1984, hailed the decision.
"It gives us more time to work on the problem," said James E. Good, the attorney representing Plato. The board "acted in accordance with the rule of law."
Critics of the plant, however, accused the air quality district of turning its back on what they see as serious health risks to residents in neighboring San Dimas and children at adjacent Arma J. Shull Elementary School.
"The district is basically saying (to Plato), 'You're a nuisance, but we're not going to bother with you,' " said Wil Baca, an independent health-risk consultant and a director of the Coalition for Clean Air. "The district clearly did not represent the interests of the people today."
The hearing was the result of a June 29 test of air pollution control equipment at the plant, just across the city line from San Dimas at 2120 E. Allen Ave.
The pollution equipment, which the air quality district had ordered Plato to install as a prerequisite for permit approval, was found to reduce the emission of hexavalent chromium at only a 59% efficiency rate, AQMD officials said. A rate of 98% had been expected.
The result is that chromium was emitted from the plant in quantities of .00009 micrograms per cubic meter at the point of greatest concentration, according to the AQMD.
Such quantities could cause 13 cancer cases per million in people living near the plant over a 70-year period, AQMD officials said. AQMD policy is to limit such risks to one case per million people. However, if a firm attempts to control the problem with the best available technology, a risk of 10 cases per million is considered acceptable, the officials said.
"We feel there is the hope of other technology to reduce the emissions better than what has been done up to now," said Martin L. Kay, acting senior engineering manager for the AQMD. "We feel the one-in-a-million risk can be achieved."
As a result, the AQMD recommended to the hearing board that a temporary variance be granted to Plato, provided that the firm limit its chrome-plating operation to four hours a day until the smokestack is erected. After that, the AQMD said, the plant can resume operating nine hours a day until Dec. 2, when company officials must appear before the hearing board again with an engineering plan for developing permanent air pollution control equipment.
In granting the variance, both the hearing board and Plato officials accepted those conditions.
"We want to stay in business," said Plato President George M. Kent. "I think I can say without qualification that something's going to come out of it."
The firm, which had moved to the one-acre site from El Monte, first encountered problems in 1984, when San Dimas resident Jeff Schenkel and a committee of parents began complaining that chemical smells from the plant were endangering the 500 grade-school students nearby.
Although tests by the AQMD found no evidence that toxic fumes were being released, the air quality district did order Plato to upgrade its air pollution control equipment earlier this year, AQMD officials said.
In addition, officials said, Plato agreed voluntarily to improve several warning mechanisms designed to reduce the chances of an accident.
Meanwhile, Schenkel and the citizens group persisted and, with the support of San Dimas city officials, persuaded the Los Angeles county district attorney's office to seek 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.
Most recently, the company became the target of a county investigation to determine whether emissions from the plant could have caused a series of miscarriages among women living nearby.
In June, three women living on the 700 block of Groveton Avenue in San Dimas reported six miscarriages among them in the last two years, according to officials for the county Department of Health Services.
Although county health officials stressed that a direct connection between the miscarriages and the Plato plant would be difficult to prove, an investigation was launched to see if other women in the vicinity had suffered similar prenatal problems.
In addition, the health department is seeking evidence of any other health problems, ranging from headaches to nausea, that could be connected to Plato's metal-plating process.
But Carol Ward, an epidemiology analyst for the department, told the hearing board Thursday that little evidence has been discovered.
"It would help us if we could see a pattern of health complaints and relate it to some plausible cause," she said, "but we just haven't seen that."