By Devin Dunlevy & Caitlin Rushton
City News Reporters
The city of Davenport could be getting a visit from Erin Brockovich in the next few weeks — but it won’t need her to sign autographs.
Instead she could join county residents and leaders who are concerned about the potent levels of chromium 6 dust lurking at a firehouse and elementary school in Davenport, which was recently revealed by the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District.
Davenport residents, Cemex representatives, and air district officials were all present at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Oct. 7. A special school board meeting at Pacific Elementary School, where the dust was found, was also held later that day.
“This is one of the low points of my life,” Mary McCarthy, a full-time firefighter and Davenport resident, said after speaking to the Board of Supervisors. “We are taking the brunt of this dust.”
The carcinorgenic dust originated in the Cemex cement plant in Davenport, which uses mill scale and steel slag in its mixtures. Experts believe these are the culprits of the dangerous emissions.
The air district conducted tests from June 10 through Aug. 5, after hearing about a similar situation at a cement plant in Riverside. The nine rounds of samples determined that concentrations of chromium 6 were at 10 times the acceptable level at the Davenport Fire Department and eight times at Pacific Elementary School.
“We converted the concentrations to risk numbers,” said Ed Kendig, an air pollution control officer. “[The risk numbers] are 81 [cases of cancer] per million at the school, and 102 per million at the firehouse. We are scrambling to learn about chromium 6, which has never been in our sights before.”
Satish Sheth, the vice president of Cemex, has worked at the plant since 1977. He spoke at both meetings, promising to suspend the use of chromium materials and replace them with safer materials like iron.
“Our goal is to solve the problem and address the community’s concerns,” Sheth said. “We will inspect all buildings and improve our management.”
Although the plant has ceased nearly all business due to the lagging economy, it is continuing loading operations on a limited basis. Some board members and locals are concerned that the loading trucks themselves are candidates for emissions.
“It’s probable that there will be fugitive emissions from loading trucks, but they should be much lower,” Kendig said.
Jose Perez, who has worked at the plant for 35 years, said his employer is handling the situation appropriately.
“I think Cemex is doing the best they can,” he said. “They didn’t even know the chromium 6 was there.”
Parents and school officials are particularly troubled about possible soil and water contamination from the carcinogen.
“We have parents that are keeping kids out of school, one family has been lost to the district,” said Shannon Smith, principal of Pacific Elementary School, at the Board of Supervisors meeting. “We need to know whether the soil and water are contaminated.”
Cemex insists that chromium 6 is only health-threatening by inhalation and that levels are too low in the soil and water to even be detected.
“Speaking for myself, I would leave my child [in school here],” said Steve Schneider, a representative of the county Environmental Health Agency. He added that it is far more dangerous to live near a busy freeway than to be exposed to trace amounts of chromium 6.
Subsequent tests by the air district found no noticeable amounts of the carcinogen in Davenport’s water.
In spite of Cemex’s promises to change business practices and monitor fugitive emissions, some residents remain skeptical.
“This is a case of corporate greed,” resident Vince LaFranco said. “Please, shut them down, stop the loading — do whatever you need to do to keep the kids safe.”