Less than 10 months after a leak of acid fumes at a Glendora factory caused children at a San Dimas elementary school to become ill, Gov. George Deukmejian has signed a bill intended to prevent such incidents in the future.
Deukmejian signed AB 3205 late last week, just hours before the Saturday deadline for bills passed during the 1988 legislative session to become law. The bill, co-authored by Assemblywomen Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Sally Tanner (D-El Monte) was passed last month by the state Senate on a 37-0 vote. The Assembly concurred with a 55-16 vote.
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will place more stringent air-pollution control regulations on industrial plants that use hazardous materials if they are within 1,000 feet of a school, hospital or convalescent home.
The main impetus for the bill was a Jan. 7 incident at Plato Products Inc., a soldering tip manufacturing plant located along the Glendora-San Dimas boundary and adjoining the playground at Arma J. Shull School.
Pungent fumes from acetic acid, used in the nickel-plating of soldering tips, escaped through an open door at the plant and drifted next door to the school. More than 100 children suffered headaches, nausea and respiratory trouble after breathing the fumes, according to the county Department of Health Services.
Although the students' symptoms were mild and short-lived, the incident provided school administrators and health officials with clear evidence that the plant had affected the health of the children. Within two weeks, Plato officials agreed to move the firm's plating operations by Sept. 1. The company now does its plating work in the City of Industry.
In the wake of the incident, officials with the Bonita Unified School District, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the county Health Department urged legislators to enact greater controls.
"It is very gratifying," said Bonita school board member Sharon Scott, who twice traveled to Sacramento to speak in favor of the bill. "It's a real joy to know that we've really made a difference in the history of the state and the health of our children. They will be safer beginning next year."
In addition to the Plato incident, the bill's proponents also cited a 1986 case in which 28 students at Tweedy Elementary School in South Gate were hospitalized after inhaling chlorine fumes leaked from a nearby plant.
Under the law, agencies such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District could investigate complaints from school officials of a potential health threat from a nearby factory and, if they find that a danger exists, require the plant to install pollution control equipment.
The measure also requires cities and counties to make certain that a firm planning to construct a plant near a school, hospital or convalescent home has received necessary permits from air-pollution control officials before issuing a building permit.
School officials choosing a location for a new school will be required to determine whether the site is near any potentially hazardous plants. Firms will also be prohibited from building such a plant within a mile of a school without consulting the school district.
Although the law gives additional authority to the AQMD to prevent industrial mishaps near schools and hospitals, air quality officials say they hope to broaden these new powers.
"We want to make it basin-wide, not just in sensitive zones," said Gene Fisher, the AQMD's intergovernmental affairs officer. "Some of these toxic clouds can impact schools or residential areas even if they're more than 1,000 feet away."
Before the bill's passage, lobbying groups representing industry had questioned whether the legislation would give the AQMD too broad a regulatory mandate. Such concerns had led the groups to oppose two similar bills, one by Waters, the other by Assemblyman Bill Lancaster (R-Covina), as being unnecessarily burdensome on businesses. Both bills were defeated in June.
After her previous bill went down to defeat, Waters was able to reintroduce the legislation by amending another toxics bill by Tanner.
The revised bill was also opposed initially by the California Manufacturers Assn., which represents more than 800 firms statewide, and the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance, whose membership includes several major oil, chemical and utility companies as well as labor unions.
After a months-long stalemate on the issue, Scott attempted to prod negotiations by contacting member firms of the council for environmental and economic balance, such as Dow Chemical and Chevron, and demanding that they take a stand on the bill. Shortly thereafter, the industry groups dropped their opposition after Waters' staff agreed to amend the bills.
"It was a very long and tedious battle," Scott said this week. "It got frustrating at times, but it's been worth it." While pleased with the bill's victory, Dr. Paul Papanek, chief of the county Health Department's toxics epidemiology program, said it is no guarantee that incidents similar to Plato--or worse--could not occur in the future.