GLENDORA — Less than two weeks ago, it seemed that Plato Products Inc. had won its battle to operate its metal-plating plant on this city's boundary with San Dimas.
After four years of opposition from nearby residents and scrutiny by county health and air quality officials, the plant, which manufactures soldering tips, had satisfied all but its most strident critics.
On the heels of a county health department report that found no evidence of increased health problems because of emissions from the plant, a school board member had begun leading a campaign to allay fears about the plant.
But in a matter of hours 10 days ago, the plant's future became clouded. And the school board member who was telling parents and residents that health risks were minimal is now among those seeking to close the plant permanently.
On Jan. 7, acetic acid mist escaped from the plant's nickel-plating equipment and drifted over the playground at neighboring Arma J. Shull Elementary School in San Dimas. The pungent acid, which in its diluted form is household vinegar, caused 11 children to become so ill that they missed school the next day, county health officials said.
Although health officials said the leakage posed no long-term health risks, the accident may have jeopardized Plato's efforts to keep the plant operating.
In response to the leakage, the Bonita Unified School District's board of trustees voted unanimously last Wednesday to take whatever measures would be necessary--including legal action against Plato or the City of Glendora--to force the plant's permanent closure.
The motion passed by the board was introduced by Trustee Sharon Scott. Since last month, Scott has led a campaign to inform residents of a county health report that found no increase in miscarriages, birth defects or other serious health problems among those living near the plant.
However, Scott said, those findings have been overshadowed by the acetic acid leakage.
'No Other Option'
"This is very serious," Scott said. "We no longer have a question of ambiguous risk factors. We have an absolute impact, leaving us with no other option but to protect our children."
Jeff Schenkel, who has spearheaded efforts to have the plant closed since it opened in 1984, was jubilant over the board's vote.
"The board has approved a broad-based mandate with some teeth in it," said Schenkel, whose two children attend the school. "After four years of working on this project, this is the biggest step forward toward resolving this issue, which of course means moving the plant."
On the same day the school board acted, the South Coast Air Quality Management District revoked exemptions that had allowed the company to operate most of its plating equipment without permits. After shutting down Plato's nickel-plating operations on the day of the leakage, AQMD officials inspected the plant last Monday and found that pollution control equipment was not adequately controlling acid gases.
Except for its chrome-plating operation, which is covered by a variance issued last month by the AQMD, all of the plant's plating processes have been shut down. Those operations will remain idle until the firm receives permits to install better pollution control devices to prevent a similar leak in the future, said Edward Camarena, the AQMD's deputy executive officer for operations.
"Essentially, the action shuts down the operation," Camarena said. "They could choose to ignore us, but if that happened, we would go to court to obtain a temporary restraining order."
Plato President George M. Kent has refused to say how the company will respond to the AQMD's action. Kent referred questions to his attorney, James Good, who did not return phone calls. Kent and Good attended Wednesday's school board meeting, but neither would respond to residents' concerns about the plant.
"We're not hiding in the weeds," Good told the more than 100 parents, teachers and residents assembled at the Bonita district offices. "We have nothing to add to what's been said."
Camarena said that the revocations could halt production at the plant for months and that Plato will be subject to fines of up to $25,000.
"We don't believe it is sufficient just to take corrective measures," Camarena said. "I think there needs to be penalty measures to serve as a deterrent."
After answering questions from parents at Wednesday's meeting, Camarena said San Dimas residents are committed to seeing the plant permanently closed.
"Plato has lost credibility with the community, and as a result the community is not going to be satisfied with anything short of their moving," Camarena said.
Although Plato can appeal to the AQMD hearing board for an emergency variance to resume operations without additional air pollution controls, Camarena and his assistant, Eugene Calafato, said the AQMD staff would rigorously oppose such a variance.