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New chromium 6 spikes in Paramount spur inspections of more firms

A view of the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city in California on May 31, 2015.           AFP PHOTO/ MARK RALSTON        (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city in California on May 31, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

South Coast Air Quality Management District officials have been tracking hexavalent chromium emissions from two Paramount metal processing plants since last fall. Now the regulators are trying to determine what's causing elevated emissions of the carcinogen a few blocks away.

The AQMD's latest investigation is focused on three facilities: Weber Metals, Press Forge and Mattco Forge. A nearby air monitor found levels of hexavalent chromium, or chromiun 6, spiked up to 10 times above background levels several times since early February, according to air district spokesman Sam Atwood.

Monitors also found elevated levels at Promise Hospital of East Los Angeles, which sits within a couple of blocks of the three metal processors, and at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, about a half mile to the north.

Officials have already evaluated emissions from equipment at one of the metal plants, says Atwood, who declined to identify which one. 

Mattco Forge is "cooperatively working with [AQMD] on the regulator's detections of hexavalent chromium in the area," says Mattco President and General Manager Jon Lindbeck.  He says the company is a "responsible corporate citizen."

Weber Metals and Press Forge have not responded to requests for comment.

Given that AQMD has previously detected high levels of chromium 6 elsewhere in Paramount, the more recent spikes are "not totally unexpected at this point," says Atwood. "However, the fact that these levels are elevated is driving us to continue a very intensive investigation to find the source or sources."

While chromium 6 poses a cancer risk through long-term exposure, Atwood says the air district is "working very rapidly" to identify where the emissions are coming from.

Last fall, AQMD detected chromium 6 at 350 times the typical background level in an industrial section of Paramount and eventually tied it to metal processors Anaplex Corp. and Aerocraft Heat Treating Co.   

The air district's independent Hearing Board eventually issued abatement orders that require each plant to shut down its chromium operations if its chromium 6 emissions exceed a certain limit. Aerocraft has had to idle its chromium-related processes four times since the beginning of the year, and Anaplex once. Each partial shutdown lasted a week.

The experience with those two firms led AQMD Executive Officer Wayne Nastri to announce Friday a multi-year "intensive air toxics initiative" that will identify which of the roughly 1,100 metal processors in the air district's region are emitting high levels of toxic metals, and force them to quickly reduce those emissions. 

The agency says it will "systematically identify and prioritize high-risk facilities" among the metal plants in the areas under its jurisdiction, which includes Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The seven-year effort will use "the latest air monitoring technology" to confirm which plants might be emitting excessive amounts of chromium 6, lead, arsenic, cadmium or nickel, according to the AQMD.

The air district estimates the air monitoring will cost roughly $6 million to $7 million a year; it says it will seek additional funding from the state for the initiative.

The AQMD also announced Friday that it's backing a bill in the state legislature that would give its executive officer the power to immediately shut down or curtail operations at plants emitting very high levels of toxic pollutants. Currently, the agency must either go to court or to its Hearing Board to get such an order, a process that it says can take "anywhere from days to months."

Finally, as a result of its experience with Aerocraft and Anaplex, the air district is working to amend its rules for facilities that emit chromium 6.

The proposed new rules reflect AQMD's "discovery of metal-related processes that were previously unknown to industry and the scientific community to be sources of hexavalent chromium emissions," the agency says.