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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : No Breathing Room : An AQMD effort to target toxic hot spots has bogged down. Thus, few residents who live near potential air polluters have been notified of the hazards.

October 27, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

El Monte homemaker Estelle Ruiz, 53, was hospitalized twice this year with water in her lungs. Her husband, Felipe, 55, nurses a nagging sore throat and stuffy nose. Next door, two children suffer nasal polyps that have turned their sinuses into solid blocks, and a doctor across the street resigned his hospital job with a crippling lung disease.

People are worried in a blue-collar El Monte neighborhood adjoining the San Bernardino Freeway; they lack statistics but it seems to them that breathing has become a struggle for too many people.

Some say it's the smog or car pollution that muddies the air. But lately, residents are raising questions about emissions from a nearby chrome-plating plant, Sargent-Fletcher.

A 1991 report the company submitted to regional air quality officials found that the air pollution caused by the company's emissions posed the biggest health risk of any factory in the San Gabriel Valley. Residents, however, only found out about the report's findings when a reporter came to call. And they're not happy that no one told them before.

"We're citizens here, and we've got our rights," said Felipe Ruiz, an evangelist. "How many people have gotten sick without even knowing about it?"

Under South Coast Air Quality Management District rules, neighborhoods such as this one are supposed to be notified about air polluters in their midst. But both businesses and environmentalists complain that the new rules set up an unwieldy procedure so mired in bureaucracy that they doubt the program will ever get in gear.

In 1989, the five-county South Coast Air Quality Management District began an ambitious program to target toxic hot spots throughout Los Angeles and surrounding counties. Companies had to report the amount of toxins they release into the air and calculate the likelihood that those pollutants would cause health problems, ranging from cancer to lead poisoning, among their neighbors.

After the agency performs a series of reviews on each report, the program's regulations require a business to inform neighbors if its emissions could cause more than 10 cancer cases per million people.

If emissions increase the cancer rate by 100 cases per million, the company is required to take steps to reduce the toxic chemicals that it releases.

AQMD officials say they have been working as fast as they can, but the exhaustive study has been under way for five years now and officials say it may be years more before it is completed.

Preliminary documents on file at the AQMD show that of 45 San Gabriel Valley companies that were required to submit reports to the agency, 12 might have to notify neighbors. Only Sargent-Fletcher, with a cancer risk estimated in 1991 at 120 per million, showed levels high enough to require reductions.

The company disputes the risk, saying the environmental consultant who prepared the report made technical errors that resulted in mistakenly high numbers. In fact, government analysts have tentatively lowered the company's health risk levels, but to a still-high 85 per million. The company also contends, however, that it has reduced emissions since the writing of the 1991 report, which is still awaiting final AQMD review.

The companies targeted by the study make everything from aerospace parts to glass bottles to mothballs. They're mostly found in lower-income areas such as El Monte or industrial towns such as Irwindale and Industry. But one is across the street from a sparkling new senior citizens complex in Claremont. And virtually none of their neighbors know of the health risks.

As stacks of reports awaiting approval pile up at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, both businesses and environmentalists are holding their breath.

*

The AQMD's Toxics Hot Spots program was intended as "the first sweeping approach to air toxics," said Ben Shaw, the program's senior enforcement manager. "This was the first one where we said, let's look at everything."

So they looked at everything. More than 5,000 facilities in the district's five-county area filed reports on their emissions. Of those, 343 facilities that appeared to be polluting the most were required to perform a more detailed study called a health risk assessment.

In the assessment, a company estimates how much toxic chemical it emits, using mathematical models of its manufacturing processes and air-flow patterns. Then it combines that with toxicology studies of people and animals to put a number value on the risks to humans.

One part of the report calculates how many extra cancer cases per million people the plant's pollution is likely to cause. Another index measures other health risks, such as lung problems, nerve damage or kidney disease.

The numbers in the reports are largely educated guesses rather than facts. It's almost impossible to measure the hazards of long-term exposure to low levels of a chemical, so environmental consultants fill in gaps in data with best-guess assumptions.

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