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Battle Over Toxics Bill Carried to Senate Panel

August 04, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Proponents of tighter controls on factories using hazardous materials near schools are ready to do battle with industry representatives at a state Senate committee meeting today in Sacramento.

Sharon Scott, a member of the Bonita school board, will appear before the Senate Toxics and Public Safety Management Committee, which is considering a revamped bill to protect schoolchildren from toxic air pollutants released by nearby factories.

Industry lobbyists say they support the concept behind the bill, as well as most of its specific provisions. But they cannot accept the proposal as currently written because, according to them, it contains sections that would result in unreasonable regulation of businesses.

'Bad Apples'

"It's not a bill we want to kill, it's a bill we want to work out," said Steve Forestberg of the California Manufacturers Assn., which represents 800 firms statewide. "There's a problem out there, and our association recognizes that there are a few, for want of a better word, bad apples."

However, Scott and other proponents say the amendments proposed by industry would gut the bill. They are hoping to overwhelm industry objections with an emotional appeal for the protection of schoolchildren.

"The bottom line is that industry plays a pretty large part in filling the campaign coffers and that's a cruel fact," Scott said. "If this bill doesn't pass, as far as I'm concerned any incident from that point forward will be (the industry representatives') responsibility, and the blood of those children will be on their hands."

Third Bill

AB 3205, co-authored by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), is the third bill introduced this legislative session seeking greater regulation on the use of toxic materials by industrial facilities near schools. Two similar bills were defeated in May in the face of staunch opposition from industry groups.

Scott has sought such legislation since January, when noxious acetic acid fumes escaped from a metal-plating room at Plato Products in Glendora and caused 100 children next door at Arma J. Shull School in San Dimas to become ill. The elementary school is in the Bonita school district.

The impetus behind Waters' bill was a more serious incident two years ago in which 28 children at Tweedy Elementary School in Southgate were hospitalized after breathing chlorine vapors released from a nearby plant.

Stricter Controls

Waters' bill calls for stricter pollution controls for existing factories using hazardous materials if they are within a quarter of a mile of a school, hospital or convalescent home.

Under the bill, a city or county would not be able to issue a building permit for such a factory unless the local air pollution control district had granted an operating permit for the facility. Plato Products received a building permit from Glendora officials in 1984 without obtaining an operating permit from air quality officials.

The bill would empower air quality officials to investigate complaints from a school or hospital administrator about emissions from a nearby factory. The investigation would include using a computer model to assess the health threat. If a potential hazard were found, officials could require the firm to install additional air pollution control equipment or, as a last resort, revoke the plant's operating permit.

Key Part of Measure

Proponents say the authority for regulatory bodies such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District to revoke a plant's permit is a key part of the bill.

"The AQMD's power to take preventive action is very limited," said Dr. Paul Papanek, who as chief of the county Health Department's toxics epidemiology program investigated the incidents at Shull and Tweedy schools.

"Once a factory has had a release, then (air quality officials) can take action," Papanek said. "We want to be smarter than that. We don't want to have to wait until kids get sick to take action."

However, industry lobbyists oppose giving air quality districts the authority to close down a plant based on the existence of a potential hazard as determined by a computer. Such risk assessments, said one, are not a sound basis on which to put a plant out of business.

"The science of risk assessment is a very uncertain and inexact one," said Evelyn Heidelberg of the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, which represents firms such as Dow Chemical, Chevron and Southern California Edison.

'A Lot at Stake'

"We're concerned with the blind faith that some of the regulators have in the numbers produced in the risk assessment process," Heidelberg said. "The problem is engineers want to plug some numbers into a computer and come up with an easy answer.

"The consequences of blindly embracing the use of risk assessments in that way are very serious for society," she added. "There's a lot at stake, not just for the industries, but for the community, because (people) depend on the jobs and the goods and services (industries) provide."

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