Finding that San Dimas residents' fears of health risks caused by toxic emissions from a Glendora chrome-plating plant were unfounded, a hearing board has granted Plato Products Inc. a variance to continue operating while the firm installs additional air pollution control equipment.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District's hearing board voted 4 to 1 on Wednesday in favor of the variance, which permits Plato to engage in chrome plating for up to nine hours a day for the next 10 months. During this time, Plato will test and install a $50,000 filtering system that is expected to reduce by 99% the plant's emissions of hexavalent chromium, a known cancer-causing agent.
Residents have complained about emissions from the plant since 1984, when Plato moved its chrome-plating operation to Glendora from El Monte. A group called the Concerned Citizens Committee has claimed that the plant poses a health risk to the 500 students at Shull Elementary School in San Dimas, located next to the firm along the boundary between the two cities.
However, board members said the residents' fear of a health hazard was based more on perception than reality, in part because a leading opponent of the plant had misrepresented the facts.
"Sometimes, due to the media, these things get blown out of proportion," said Coralie Kupfer, the board's chairwoman. "As far as I'm concerned, there has been no correlation shown between the operations of Plato Products and any health problems in the population."
In granting the variance to Plato, the board rejected a request, made by AQMD attorney Cindy Simovich on behalf of the Bonita Unified School District, that the plant be required to restrict its chrome-plating operations to hours when children would not be at the school.
Plato President George M. Kent had told the board that changing the plant's work schedule would cost the firm more than $5,000 a month.
"I think you run into trouble when you start trying to address fears and make businesses in the district pay for that," Kupfer said. "This is America, and that doesn't seem right to me."
Jeff Schenkel, who has led the residents' campaign against the Plato plant, reacted angrily to the board's decision.
"The hearing board has once again demonstrated clearly that it is in bed with industry," Schenkel said.
However, Schenkel said he did not consider the decision a defeat. Since his group began its campaign three years ago, Plato has increased the height of the plant's smokestack by 14 feet. Schenkel said the installation of the filtering system is the fruit of his groups' efforts.
"We haven't lost at all--we've come a long way," Schenkel said. "If we can trap 99% of the chrome and keep (the risk of cancer) down to one in a million, that's a major step."
Kent said he felt vindicated by the hearing board's decision.
"We felt all along that this was a trumped-up issue," the plating firm's president said. "The health risk to children at Shull School was greatly overstated, which I felt was sinful, to alarm parents over a non-existent risk."
Tests conducted by the AQMD in July indicated that Plato's pollution control system was reducing the plant's emissions of hexavalent chromium by 59%. Over 70 years, such a concentration of the toxin could be expected to cause 13 to 16 cancer cases for each million people exposed, according to AQMD computer models.
AQMD standards stipulate that the emission of carcinogens is permissible only when the additional cancer risk is no more than one case per million. But in cases where plants are equipped with the best available pollution control technology, the risk may be as high as 10 in a million.
In September, the AQMD--citing the results of the July study--refused to grant Plato a permit to operate. The firm received a variance to continue operating the plant while it took steps to reduce emissions.
Plato has since increased the height of the plant's smokestack to more than 47 feet to better disperse the toxic emissions. The AQMD staff has determined that this lowers the cancer risk to the acceptable threshold of 10 cases per million.
Denison York, a safety engineer hired by Plato to design a new pollution control system, said the plant will be equipped with a "hydrophobic fine-fiber filter," which would trap 99% of the hexavalent chromium emitted during the chrome-plating process.
Tran Vo, an engineer with the AQMD, told the board that such a filter has never been used to reduce emissions of hexavalent chromium, but that it has been found to be more than 99% effective when used to control other contaminants. Vo added that reducing emissions of the carcinogen by 98% would decrease the cancer risk to one case per million.
While he applauded the company's plans, Schenkel, whose two children attend Shull Elementary School, said he was concerned about the risk posed to nearby students and residents during the 10 months before the new filter becomes operational.