SACRAMENTO — In a setback for efforts to safeguard schoolchildren from facilities that release hazardous emissions, the Assembly on Tuesday rejected two bills that would have given air quality officials greater control over factories built near schools.
The Assembly's Ways and Means Committee defeated a measure sponsored by Assemblyman William H. Lancaster (R-Covina) that would have enabled air quality management districts to deny operating permits to new or renovated factories located next to a school, hospital or convalescent home if the plants posed a potential health hazard.
The committee voted 7 to 2 in favor of the measure, five votes short of the 12 votes necessary for passage. The remaining 14 committee members either abstained or were absent.
The bill was prompted by a leak of noxious fumes that made children at a San Dimas elementary school ill earlier this year.
Several hours earlier, the full Assembly rejected a motion to reconsider a measure sponsored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) that would have empowered pollution control officials to impose specified controls on existing and new companies located within one-quarter mile of a school. It also would have required local school districts to assess the risks of emissions from existing plants when choosing new school sites.
The motion on Waters' bill--which failed to win approval last week--fell one vote of the 41 necessary to carry. Only one of the 40 yes votes was cast by a Republican.
Lancaster, who had supported Waters' bill in the vote last week, abstained from the vote on Tuesday--leaving the reconsideration measure one vote shy of passage. Lancaster said later in an interview that he had reviewed Waters' bill and found it to be "flawed." An angry aide to Waters blamed Lancaster for contributing to "a real tragedy."
"We had a commitment from those in the industry to sit down and work on the bill," said Stan Diorio, senior assistant to Waters. "Now it is dead. . . . We consider it a potentially dangerous situation."
Paul Papanek, chief of the county Department of Health Services' toxics epidemiology program, was disappointed by the bills' defeat.
"It's a damned shame that the Legislature couldn't find a way to give us the legislation we think we need," Papanek said. "The problem won't go away. We need to give some attention to this problem and the sooner the better. We can't go on ducking this problem and pretending it doesn't exist."
Lancaster's bill was prompted by a Jan. 7 incident at Plato Products Inc., a soldering-tip manufacturing plant in Glendora. Pungent fumes from acetic acid, used in the plant's nickel-plating operation, escaped through an open door and caused 100 children at an adjacent elementary school to suffer headaches, nausea and respiratory troubles.
Waters' bill was prompted by a 1986 incident in which 28 children at Tweedy Elementary School in South Gate were hospitalized after breathing chlorine gas released from a nearby plant.
Although the noxious effects of the fumes leaked from the Plato plant were short-lived, outraged parents of children at Arma J. Shull Elementary School in San Dimas demanded that the plant be shut down.
A group of parents had vigorously opposed Plato since it moved to Glendora from El Monte in 1984, claiming the plant was emitting excessive amounts of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing agent.
However, the South Coast Air Quality Management District allowed the plant to continue operating after Plato officials pledged to install a high-tech filtering system to trap 99% of its chromium emissions.
But after the acetic acid leak, officials with the air quality district, the Bonita Unified School District and the county Department of Health Services joined parents in urging that the plant be closed.
On Jan. 19, Plato officials voluntarily agreed to cease all plating work at the plant by Sept. 1 and to operate only when school is not in session until then.
Although the immediate controversy over Plato Products had been resolved, officials such as Papanek argued that legislation was needed to prevent similar mishaps in the future.
In February, Gene Fisher, intergovernmental affairs officer for the air quality district, began looking for a legislator to carry such a bill. He found two Assembly members--one Republican and one Democrat--with different strategies for dealing with the issue.
Betrayed by Politics
After hearing of the bills' defeat Wednesday morning, Bonita school board Vice President Sharon Scott angrily blamed Lancaster for allowing partisan interests to undermine the passage of some type of legislation regulating factories and schools.
"I am devastated," Scott said. "I'm extremely disappointed that this issue got caught in the middle of a political circus. . . . We trusted Bill Lancaster's commitment to ensure that he would not allow this to become a partisan issue."
Scott said that she doubts that Lancaster was sincere in sponsoring his bill.