Hixson Metal Finishing

Allen Saul, who lives in the apartment complex next to the Hixson metal finishing plant, at right, in Newport Beach and a former environmental worker at the plant, talks about his experience working there and living next to the plant since 1991. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / April 1, 2014)

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A metal finishing facility in Newport Beach poses an "unacceptably high" cancer risk to its neighbors and should curtail its emissions as soon as possible, state air quality officials said Tuesday.

The agency said it will ask its independent hearing board to order Hixson Metal Finishing to reduce its emissions of Chromium 6 "on an expedited schedule."

The plant is located in a partly residential neighborhood near the border with Costa Mesa, directly adjacent to an apartment building. Monitoring instruments that the South Coast Air Quality Management District installed across the street from the plant found a cancer risk of up to 540 in a million. From the roof of the carport at the apartment building, the risk was up to 375 in a million.

"It's high, it's unacceptably high," said Sam Atwood, the air district's spokesman. "They are going to have to take every measure possible to reduce their risk."

Hixson President Douglas Greene said the company will work with the air district on a plan to comply with pollution rules. Green said the company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years ensuring that equipment is up to date and that every piece of machinery that could be emitting chromium 6 has been inspected.

"We'll find the source and stop it," he said.

But Green also questioned whether all the toxic emissions were coming from his plant, saying he's witnessed other businesses in the area "doing things we wouldn't do."

Air district officials said they are sure the chromium is coming from Hixson because monitors inside the facility have also picked up high readings. Still, officials cautioned residents not to be too alarmed by the findings.

The cancer risk from air pollution is still lower in the neighborhood around Hixson than it is in much of the rest of the Los Angeles basin because the overall air quality in Newport Beach is so much better, they said.

The average cancer risk in Southern California from all sources of air pollution combined is about 1,200 in a million, according to the air district. In Newport Beach, however, it is around 560. Even with the additional burden imposed on residents living near Hixson, it is still lower than average, officials pointed out.

Other chrome plating operations elsewhere in Southern California may pose similar dangers.

Air district officials began continuously monitoring the air around Hixson about a decade ago after a larger examination of pollution in the region picked up higher than expected levels of Chromium 6 near the facility.

Chromium 6 levels in the area gradually declined but then ticked up again in 2011, said Mohsen Nazemi, the air district's deputy executive officer. "We are trying to pinpoint where the emissions may be coming from" inside the plant, Nazemi said.

Air district officials said they intend to file their order of abatement by the end of April.

Chromium 6 is a known carcinogen often used in metal plating. It gained renown in the Oscar-winning film "Erin Brockovich" about pollution in Hinkley, a high-desert community northeast of Los Angeles.

This is not the first time the Hixson facility has been accused of posing a danger. In 1987, one of the worst hazardous materials fires in Southern California occurred there. Several firefighters who fought the blaze later died of cancer.

Tuesday afternoon, apartment complexes and mobile home parks near the facility were largely quiet. A few residents said they had no idea about Hixson, its operations or its history.

Denise Robinson, 53, floated in the pool at the Newport Terrace mobile home park before taking off for work at an area hospital. She said she hadn't heard of the Hixson plant, just around the corner from her home, and was surprised to hear about the pollution.

"That's something to be concerned about," she said.

Newport Beach city officials said they would work with regulators, as needed.

"We are concerned about any emission of a material such as hexavalent chromium and how it might impact our residents and businesses nearby, as well as the employees of Hixson," City Manager Dave Kiff said in a statement. "We appreciate the diligence with which state and county officials have approached this issue."

Jessica.garrison@latimes.com

Garrison writes for the Los Angeles Times.

[For the record, 11:32 a.m. April 2: An earlier version of this story misspelled Hixson President Douglas Greene's last name.]