Sharon Marsonette and her family went coughing to the emergency room last November after the company next door caught fire and fumes spewed into her Spokane Valley home.
The blaze scattered 26 workers from Spur Industries, a metal products plant on East Euclid. Firefighters also told Marsonette to evacuate.
Since then, the 55-year-old retired sheriff’s deputy has become an environmental sleuth in the neighborhood where she has lived for 16 years.
“The more I learned, the more alarmed I got,” Marsonette said.
Her most recent discovery left Spokane County officials red-faced: Spur Industries does not have a permit to operate a plating shed where the company has used highly toxic chromium to coat metal parts for Kaiser Aluminum since 1983.
The shed was built in 1981 with a legal building permit and then was converted to a plating operation.
“There was never a formal change-of-use permit issued to them. It was an oversight,” said Bill Benish, Spokane County plans examiner.
Last week, after Marsonette’s inquiry, Benish sent Spur a letter telling the company to get its permits in order and answer several questions about how it handles waste and hazardous chemicals on its property over the aquifer.
“We will straighten this out with the county,” said John Scelfo, one of Spur’s owners, after meeting this week with county officials.
“We’ve been inspected for years and years. This is not an attempt to avoid anything,” Scelfo said.
Spur’s 30-by-30-foot plating shed, which uses about 150 pounds of chromic acid a year, is located five feet from Marsonette’s back fence near her bedroom window. A tall stack ventilates fumes to the outside air.
The two properties coexist in a zoning jumble - a cluster of modest, 1950s-era houses just off Flora Road next to large industrial warehouses that moved in later.
Marsonette wants answers about a series of puzzling family illnesses - including her dizziness, her son’s colitis and her 7-year-old grandson’s persistent skin rash.
Lyle Jorgens, Spur’s president, has told her nothing harmful burned in the Nov. 16 fire, Marsonette said. Jorgens paid her emergency room bills last year.
He’s offered to buy her house for $75,000 - but only if she signs a waiver not to sue for any future health damages to her or her family.
Jorgens could not be reached for comment.
Marsonette said she’s refused to sign the waiver while she gathers more information, using the investigative skills she learned as a deputy sheriff in Malibu, Calif.
She’s made dozens of calls to county and state environmental officials and collected hundreds of pages of documents. A Spokane attorney sent her a book-length chemical profile of chromium.
The metal can cause lung cancer, blindness, skin burns, rashes and colitis. The list of possible health damage includes some of the illnesses she says her family has suffered.
Marsonette also wants to know how Spur handles its wastes. County records, she’s found, are inaccurate.
A June 1987 Spokane County Health District memo says Spur is “connected to the industrial park sewer system.” Marsonette called the Spokane Industrial Park to check. An official there told her Spur, located west of the industrial park, isn’t connected to their sewer.
The 1987 memo was wrong, Benish said.
Spur is on a septic tank system and doesn’t discharge hazardous waste, Scelfo said.
State regulators have cited Spur twice, according to county records.
The Washington Department of Ecology said Spur violated state hazardous waste regulations in February 1994 by burning rags contaminated with the solvent methyl ethyl ketone on its property.
In March 1995, the Department of Labor and Industries cited Spur for not having a correct hazard communication plan.
Scelfo declined to give further details about Spur’s operations.
But state Labor and Industries’ inspection reports provide some information. Spur employs about 34 full-time people, uses a “patented secret process 24 hours a day,” and works closely with Kaiser Aluminum.
“Building 2 is a very small plating room with super ventilation and much different than any other chrome plating facility I had ever seen,” the Labor and Industries inspector said.
Spur puts a fine chrome plate on pieces of bonded steel and aluminum, according to the inspector.
The company’s chromium air emissions are within legal limits, say Spokane’s air quality cops.
The company’s been notified of new federal rules further limiting chromium emissions that take effect next January.
Under the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules will slash chromium emissions nationwide by 99 percent - eliminating 173 tons now released to the air.
There are about 5,020 affected facilities nationwide, and many are small shops located near residential neighborhoods, according to the EPA.
After months of research, Marsonette is glad to have gotten some action. Spokane County Commissioner John Roskelley visited her home on Monday. County officials met with Spur’s managers on Tuesday.
But Marsonette is even more uneasy about her family’s health. She’s packing their belongings into a large van.
“We have no place to go. We’re in limbo,” Marsonette said.
The deal’s off to buy Marsonette’s house, Spur’s Scelfo said Wednesday.
“This has been blown totally out of proportion,” he said.