SAN DIMAS — Public health and air quality officials met here Tuesday night to quell fears about long-term health risks resulting from the operation of Plato Products Inc., a Glendora metal-plating firm located next to a San Dimas elementary school.
However, many of the more than 300 parents and residents who attended the meeting reacted with skepticism--sometimes even hostility--to the officials' qualified words of reassurance.
"It's all still 'if' and 'maybe,' " one parent complained.
The meeting was held in the wake of an incident on Jan. 7 when acetic acid from Plato's nickel-plating operation escaped from the plant, apparently causing children at Arma J. Shull School to become ill. All plating operations at the plant have been at least temporarily shut down.
11 Absences Cited
Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the county Department of Health Services' toxics and epidemiology program, told the parents that it appeared the acetic acid leak caused at least 11 children at the school to become so ill that they had to stay home from school the next day.
Bonita school board member Sharon Scott, who organized Tuesday's meeting at Lone Hill School, has sent a health survey to the parents of all children at Shull School. At last count, 68% of the questionnaires had been returned. Papanek said the preliminary results seem to confirm that many more children exhibited symptoms of acetic acid exposure: eye and throat irritation, headaches and nausea.
'Experienced a Nuisance'
"(The survey) tells us that it was more than just the (11) kids who were absent," Papanek said. "Other kids at least experienced a nuisance, and some may have had a minor illness."
But Papanek was quick to stress that although the exposure to pungent acetic acid--a highly concentrated form of vinegar--can cause discomfort and irritation, the incident posed no long-term health hazard.
When parents asked Papanek how he could be so sure that their children had not been permanently harmed, he cited studies of workers exposed to high concentrations of acetic acid for a few years. But when asked whether he could prove beyond any doubt that there was absolutely no potential for future health problems, Papanek said the data did not permit such a far-reaching conclusion.
Several parents scoffed at this lack of certainty.
"The doctor, he hasn't answered one question," said parent Howard VanVeghten. "He does not know the long-term effects (of the plant's emissions), and he even said so. . . . I don't want my kids dying in 20 years because of Plato."
After the two-hour meeting, Papanek sighed and shook his head.
"I'm not so sure we did our job here," he said. "I'm not so sure we got a clear message across that although this problem shouldn't be here, the magnitude of the problem is small."
Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District also had trouble getting their message across to the parents.
Edward Camarena, the AQMD's deputy executive officer for operations, told the audience that inspectors had shut down Plato's nickel-plating operation the day of the leak and that on Jan. 13 the district revoked the permit exemptions that had allowed the firm to operate most of its plating equipment.
These actions meant that the only plating equipment the firm can legally operate is its chrome-plating process, Camarena said, adding that Plato voluntarily shut down its chrome-plating operation last Friday.
"We have done everything in our power to shut that operation down and prevent a recurrence" of the Jan. 7 incident, Camarena told the parents. "If they open again, it would be at a level of control where I could look you in the eye and say I wouldn't mind having my own child go to school there."
However, parents expressed vehement opposition to the plant's continued existence. Several said they are unable to sell their homes because they are legally required to alert potential buyers to the plant's history of problems.
Firm May Appeal
Last Friday, Plato applied for permits to resume operating the equipment that had been previously covered by exemptions, Camarena said. Although the AQMD staff denied the application, the company may appeal to the AQMD hearing board, an independent judicial body.
When audience members pressed Camarena to guarantee that the plant would never be allowed to resume full operations, he said he could not promise that the hearing board would not give Plato the necessary permits and variances.
One audience member asked how many chances the firm would be allowed, referring to an incident that resulted in a $27,200 fine last year after the firm pleaded no contest to 10 misdemeanor counts of illegally dumping toxic wastes.
"That plant was cited 10 times for dumping into the sewers," said La Verne resident Jerry Chagaris. "What would happen if you were cited 10 times for drunk driving?"
Chagaris said the informational meeting left him doubting public officials' credibility.
'Only Ones I Believe'