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Judge delays ruling on Sriracha factory shutdown

No date set for decision on whether to temporarily close Irwindale Sriracha factory due to residents' complaints of a harmful odor

November 22, 2013|By Frank Shyong
  • Bottles of Sriracha hot sauce travel down a conveyor belt to be boxed for shipment at the Huy Fong Foods Inc. facility in Irwindale.
Bottles of Sriracha hot sauce travel down a conveyor belt to be boxed for… (Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg )

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Friday delayed a ruling on the city of Irwindale's request to temporarily shut down the Sriracha hot sauce factory in response to residents' claims of a harmful odor.

Judge Robert H. O'Brien said he had been anticipating a report from the South Coast Air Quality Management District on the nature of the smell. Inspectors had installed air sampling devices at the factory and around the neighborhood.

"I expected more information from your side," O'Brien told attorney John R. Tate, who represents Huy Fong Foods.

Tate said he has not received a report or citation from the district, and district officials said no report is planned because they have not issued a violation. O'Brien is expected to rule on the temporary shutdown sometime in the coming weeks but gave no date.

"There's no evidence that we're causing a smell," Tate said Friday. "Maybe there's a smell coming from somewhere else, but there's no evidence it's coming from our plant."

Tate questioned complaints from residents, including a family that said it had to move a birthday party indoors.

"It just coalesces into a concentrated form and then drops onto somebody's house? That's scientifically impossible," Tate said.

Gina Kim, Irwindale's attorney, said the city continued receiving complaints into the first week of November.

"We want to get it fixed since this is an ongoing seasonal problem," Kim said.

The city filed suit against Huy Fong Foods on Oct. 28, claiming emissions from the production of its hot sauces were causing residents to cough, gag and complain of inflamed respiratory conditions. A judge denied the city's prior request for a temporary restraining order on Oct. 31.

No matter what the judge decides on the temporary shutdown, Huy Fong Foods must appear in court at least once more to decide the question of a more permanent stoppage. A hearing date has not been set.

A central point of disagreement has been whether or not the smell is harmful, a question that will be even more difficult to answer now that Huy Fong Foods has already ground all the chili from the year's harvest.

At least 18 households have complained to the city, according to court documents. Multiple residents complained of searing red dust and particles in the air, and compared the sensation to pepper spray. One woman claimed she noticed her children were getting nosebleeds at a greater frequency. Others complained of swollen glands, and another said he was forced to take heartburn medicine after he encountered the smell while jogging.

But the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is traditionally the lead agency in declaring an odor a public nuisance, has not issued a violation. Spokesman Sam Atwood says there's a high bar. Inspectors must be able to verify several smell complaints from private property owners within a day in order to issue a violation. They also have to be able to track the odor back to its source.

So far, the district has received 37 complaints and inspectors have verified smells on three different occasions on three different days. Each time they were unable to track the odor back to the Sriracha plant.

The data gathered from the monitoring devices that were installed in the plant and neighborhood has been extremely limited, Atwood added. A sample from the surrounding neighborhood showed only rubber particles from car tires and some burnt organic matter. The sample from inside the factory detected a compound called ethyl acetate commonly found during food and beer production – but at a concentration several thousand times below harmful levels, Atwood said.

The district cannot draw any kind of meaningful conclusion from the data collected, he said.

frank.shyong@latimes.com

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