Column: Why California anti-chromers can't see the forest for the trees

Column: Why California anti-chromers can’t see the forest for the trees

For as long as he can remember, Luis “Speedy” Rodriguez was all about chrome.

Growing up in his hometown of Mexico City, he confessed, “I wouldn’t get on buses if they weren’t fixed deceived.

After emigrating to the United States as a teenager, Rodriguez wanted to work in a chrome plating factory so badly that he started cleaning bathrooms and delivering parts. Free.

All these decades later, Rodriguez, now 50, is a chrome plating legend. His filigree handwork adorns hundreds of lowriders across Southern California. His cars have appeared in Audi commercials, Travis Scott music videos and promotions for Hollywood films.

Rodriguez’s “retirement” is a collection of Chevrolet Impalas from 1958 to 1964 – the best years of the iconic model — stored in a company garage, Speedy’s Metal Finishing in Long Beach. They’re plated with enough shiny material — chrome, yes, but also copper, rose gold, stainless steel, and even 24k gold — to make the diamonds look as shiny as a tube. cardboard-based.

All around us were hundreds of chrome parts—bolts, suspension coils, A-arms, gas tanks, tire rims—on the floor, on shelves, on tables, and even desks.

“The chrome is magic,” Rodriguez said as we strolled through his enclosure. “When you see it on a car, it’s inexplicable.”

I agree. When I look at the grille of my 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, it’s like a portal to another world, a world where everything shines, where hardworking people take care of what they have and where life doesn’t matter. what to pass.

I visited Rodriguez hoping to see a rusty bumper turn into a shimmering beauty. But he now contracts out that work to finishers in Santa Fe Springs and Fullerton. When I asked why, he laughed.

“Oh no,” Gonzalez replied. “They have to manage everything. City. Firefighters. OSHA, AQMD. Even if I had the money, I wouldn’t do it. Let them take care of the headaches.

Chevy Impala engine

A look under the hood of a custom Chevrolet Impala at Rodriguez’s shop in Long Beach.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Last month, the California Air Resources Board held a public hearing to discuss the use of hexavalent chromium, a compound that gives chrome products – not just auto parts, but also faucets and appliances – their alluring shine. . The finished product is harmless, but the plating process, which involves soaking the parts in a chemical bath, produces air emissions 500 times more toxic than diesel exhaust.

The Air Resources Board has heavily regulated hexavalent chromium in California since it was identified as a toxic air contaminant in 1986. Now the board is considering a total ban on its use by 2039. So-called decorative chromists like Rodriguez are expected to stop by 2027, as many operate near working-class neighborhoods. Platers will have to switch to a less toxic — and less shiny and more expensive — chrome plating material, something Rodriguez doesn’t think his peers and customers will embrace.

We stood in front of a black 1960 Impala to admire the trim that ran the length of the side of the car. One half was chrome plated, the other stainless steel.

Which was which?

I guessed correctly – the stainless steel was slightly duller. Only a reducer could make the difference. Gonzalez explained that steel is much cheaper than chrome plating, but few customers ask for it.

“It’s always about the blinghe explained with a sympathetic shrug.

The board will make its final decision in May. Gonzalez was a fact when I asked about the possible ban. “It’s been talked about for years, so I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said. But the usually jovial man was silent then.

“It’s the majority of my life. … That would be sad. There are people who have been doing this for many years, and — boom! — no work.” He noted that customers were simply shipping parts to other states or driving to Tijuana.

“What makes it funny,” Gonzalez concluded, “is [California] wanted to make marijuana legal, and now chromium is illegal. Drugs are poison, but it is now more respectable in California to sell drugs.

Banning carcinogenic pollutants is a noble cause. But the more I read the California Air Resources Board’s 253-page report, the more I felt its authors were committing two bureaucratic sins increasingly in vogue in Sacramento: creating a solution in search of a problem, and missing the forest for the trees.

Hexavalent chromium contamination is no joke. It was the pollutant in the lawsuits who made Erin Brockovich famous. At the end of the 1990s, a cancer cluster has sprouted in elementary and middle schools in Suva in Bell Gardens which led to a legal settlement against a neighboring chromer. In 2017 and 2018, a Paramount company temporarily suspended certain operations three times after exceeding hexavalent chromium levels set by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a case study cited in the council’s report.

I expected to find more examples like these that might justify the accelerated push against decorative chromers like Gonzalez. But when I asked the council for statistics on high cancer rates among Californians who live near these businesses, information officer Melanie J. Turner replied, “We are not aware of any No data. Turner also forwarded a statement from the California Bureau of Environmental Health Risk Assessment that admitted the same.

Both agencies emphasize the potential risks of any exposure near platers that use hexavalent chromium. But if the mere suspicion of danger is behind the ban, then the California Air Resources Board ignores its own findings. Decorative and industrial chromers accounted for just 0.4% of all hexavalent chromium emissions in 2020 that council staffers were able to trace. Far worse polluters are the lumber manufacturers, glass producers, and even the gas stoves that so many Californians use.

Biggest culprit by far? Vehicle exhaust and fossil fuel combustion.

So why focus on decorative chromers, I asked Gonzalez? Or why not just move them away from residents, or just require even more regulations?

It’s pure politicshe replied, using a line — it’s pure politics — that the rancho libertarians in my life always use to explain political stupidity. “There are better things we need to take care of.”

State lawmakers have pored over California car culture for years in the name of environmental justice and the fight against climate change. The Air Resources Board already voted last year to stop the sale of all new petrol cars by 2035. Legislators passed two laws aimed at to target noisy cars. Los Angeles is considering ban new gas stations.

All of these moves are well intentioned. But they target a way of life whose last admirers and defenders are mostly working-class people of color — an easy sacrifice on the altar of saying you’re saving the planet. The council admits it: it predicts that banning hexavalent chromium in favor of more expensive alternatives “will result in further competitive disadvantage and potential closures of chromium plating businesses” and “negative employment impacts”.

But oh well!

The taillights, rear bumper and spare tire cover of a custom Chevrolet Impala

Rodriguez’s “retirement” is a collection of Chevrolet Impalas from 1958 through 1964 – the iconic model’s best years – stored in a garage at his company, Speedy’s Metal Finishing in Long Beach.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Rodriguez workers started coming in as I prepared to leave. They welcomed Erasmo Gonzalez, a client winemaker for a decade. He came that morning from Delano to check the parts on his 1975 Chevrolet Caprice convertible.

“I think they’ve got plenty,” said the 42-year-old, who wore a Los Angeles Dodgers cap with his last name stitched into the side. “Forest fires put all kinds of bad things in the air. Why don’t they ban them?

Erasmo noted that the air quality in Southern California has improved dramatically over the decades thanks to cleaner fuels and better engines even as the population has grown and more vehicles are on the road than ever.

“Technology makes things better,” he said. “There is always a way to fix it. Don’t just ban for ban’s sake.

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