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Pesticide Lab Foes Adamant Despite Gain of Concessions : Toxics: 'I know this is a life-or-death situation,' one councilman said. 'It's something we don't want.'


DOWNEY — Residents stood fast last week in opposition to a pesticide laboratory and warehouse even though county officials agreed to reduce the amount of poisonous substances stored in the building under construction near Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center.

The county's concessions were announced Wednesday at a hearing held by Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Norwalk) at Downey City Hall. "They're going to tell everybody (less pesticide will be stored), then they can turn around and put whatever they want in there," said Rosan Springer, spokeswoman for a community opposition group, Concerned Citizens of Downey.

Downey Councilman Roy L. Paul said he still wants to see the facility built elsewhere.

"I know this is a life-or-death situation," Paul said. "It's something we don't want."

Epple said he also opposes having the warehouse in Downey, but he praised county officials for reducing the amount of pesticide they plan to store at the facility. Epple said there appears to be little he or anyone else can do to stop county officials from building and using the facility as they choose.

"Public pressure appears to be the only recourse that we have," Epple said.

Paul said Downey officials are still meeting with Supervisor Pete Schabarum and other county officials to at least reduce potential dangers at the facility.

There was standing room only as more than 150 people filled the council chambers for the hearing.

A spokesman for the office of the county Agricultural Commissioner/Department of Weights, which will use the new facility, told the crowd that county officials decided to reduce the amount of poisoned squirrel bait stored at the facility from 40,000 pounds to about 9,000 pounds. That may eliminate the need to fumigate the bait and vent fumigant into the air afterward, a primary concern of area residents.

Agricultural commissioner spokesman Richard C. Wightman said he could not guarantee there would be no fumigation, but he assured residents the facility would be built to confine the fumigant until it could be safely vented in small amounts into the air.

"The new facility . . . is built with a concern for the environment," Wightman said.

The facility has generated numerous protests by residents who do not want any pesticides stored near their neighborhoods.

The 26,900-square-foot laboratory and warehouse is being built on a 1.68-acre parcel of county land near the southwest corner of Imperial Highway and Garfield Avenue. It will replace an aging facility in Pico Rivera. The new facility is to be completed next April.

The laboratory will be used to ensure that agricultural products brought into the county do not contain excessive amounts of pesticide residue, among other things.

The warehouse will be used to store equipment, such as fruit fly traps. But the county also plans to use about 5,000 square feet of the warehouse to store thousands of pounds of pesticides, including herbicides and the ground squirrel poison.

Initially, the county planned to store more than 20 types of pesticides at the facility. But Downey officials were notified last August that the list of pesticides to be stored at the facility had been pared to 11.

Downey officials and residents said they are worried about spills or fumes from fires that could affect workers and passers-by at neighboring county facilities, such as the Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center. There also are homes nearby in Downey and in neighboring South Gate. South Gate Councilman Bill DeWitt said the homes in his city are the closest to the facility, with some residences just 325 feet away.

The environmental impact report for the project notes the possibility of spills at the site but says cleanup equipment, protective clothing and employee training programs will render the danger insignificant.

The facility's work area will be paved and drainage will be directed to a concrete sump to prevent soil contamination, the report said.

The report notes that a spill could occur during an accident involving a vehicle transporting toxic chemicals to and from the facility. It also says a fire at the facility could release toxic fumes and prompt the evacuation of the area.

But the report also notes that the chances of a traffic accident involving a spill are small, and the risk from fumes during a fire would probably be confined to the facility.

But city officials and residents have little confidence in the county officials or in the environmental report because of the way the project has been handled.

Downey officials maintain they and the public did not realize the project was moving forward until this last summer. Epple and Councilman Paul pointed out that the 1987 published notice of the environmental impact report on the project made no mention that hazardous chemicals would be stored at the facility.

They also noted that county officials who worked to win city approval for a light business park next to the warehouse in July, 1988, never mentioned the storage plans.

County officials have maintained that they met all legal requirements for notification.

Epple grudgingly agreed that the county had met its legal obligations.

"Technically, they followed the legal requirements, but they didn't follow the spirit of the law," Epple said.

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