Paramount metal firm sues, and gets sued, over chromium 6

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A Paramount metal processing firm at the center of a controversy over high emissions of a carcinogenic pollutant is suing regulators over the accuracy of an air monitor, while residents are suing the company for allegedly exposing them to a major health risk.

Aerocraft Heat Treating Co., has sued the South Coast Air Quality Management District, challenging the readings of one of the agency's air monitors. The suit, filed on Feb. 24, asks a Superior Court judge to order the district to improve the accuracy of its hexavalent chromium monitoring data and to take into consideration Aerocraft's own air measurements.

Meanwhile, a group of residents in the South L.A. city has filed a class action lawsuit against Aerocraft and five other metal businesses for "deliberate and intentional" emissions of hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6. The suit, filed Feb. 28, seeks punitive damages.

The metal firm's suit against the AQMD grew out of its claim that one of the district's monitors inaccurately reported elevated chromium 6 emissions near Aerocraft's facility on Feb. 12. The company also says the AQMD refused to consider Aerocraft's own air monitoring data, which did not show elevated pollution levels. Those high levels led the air district to order the firm to temporarily shut down and idle many of its workers, the suit says.

The air district has ordered four temporary shutdowns of Aerocraft's chromium 6 operations over the past two months.

The AQMD stands by its data, says spokesman Sam Atwood. "Our air monitoring and analysis work in Paramount is conducted according to U.S. EPA standards and in adherence with strict protocols by our field monitoring and laboratory staff," he says.

With regard to the citizens' class action suit against Aerocraft, the metal processor's parent company, Precision Castparts Corporation, takes the allegations seriously but believes they're without merit, says Precision spokeswoman Jenny Dudikoff. Precision, a defendant in the suit, is also the parent company of two other firms named in the complaint, Carlton Forge Works and Press Forge Company.

"We have made significant investments to our facilities in Paramount beyond what is required by current regulations, and we are also cooperating with and assisting state agencies by providing information as they consider revising regulations," Dudikoff says. "We remain committed to operating responsibly and to protecting the health and safety of our employees, the community, and the environment while contributing to the regional economy."

The South Coast Air Quality Management District determined last fall that Aerocraft was one of at least two businesses responsible for a spike in chromium 6 emissions in the tiny South Los Angeles city.

The company and the air district met before the agency's independent Hearing Board in December and agreed to a pollution reduction plan: It requires the company to suspend operations that produce chromium 6 if its average emissions over a week exceed 1 nanogram per cubic meter. That threshold is intended to greatly reduce residents' cancer risk.

Aerocraft raised its concerns about the AQMD's air monitor with the Hearing Board. Atwood says the company and the agency are now discussing the possibility of positioning their monitors side-by-side. Until that happens, he says the AQMD will continue to rely on its own monitor.

Atwood says the pollution reduction plan is working.

"The public should be assured that this Hearing Board order is working because anytime the levels exceed the threshold set in the order, the facility has to shut down, so there's no question of the facility operating and emitting high levels of hexavalent chromium," he says. "That's not happening anymore."

But that's not reassuring to some Paramount residents, says Robert Finnerty, one of the attorneys representing the seven individuals who filed the class action suit. He expects a "significant" number of people will take legal action against Aerocraft, either through separate claims or by joining the class if it's certified by the judge.

The air district has determined so far that two companies – Aerocraft and Anaplex Corp. – were responsible for elevated chromium 6 emissions. But the class action suit names four more Paramount metal businesses "out of an abundance of caution, trying to identify any of the potential polluters," Finnerty says.

"The overall goals of the action that people are taking out there is, one, to clean up the environment, two, compensate people who have been truly harmed and, three, deter polluters from continuing to try to skate around regulatory issues,” he says.