News Column

Texas-type Blast Not Likely at Calif. Plant

April 19, 2013

Marijke Rowland

After the massive Texas fertilizer plant blast, Northern San Joaquin Valley agencies said they feel prepared to handle hazardous materials accidents in the region.

Modesto Regional Fire Authority Interim Chief Gary Hinshaw said the county does not have a facility that could cause the scope of damage that happened in West, where 54,000 pounds of potentially dangerous and volatile anhydrous ammonia gas was stored.

"I don't believe we have anything in the magnitude of that facility here," Hinshaw said. "And most of our facilities have very good safety plans in place. I think our past history of not having those kinds of events are a pretty good indicator of the safety record of industry in our county. We just haven't seen a lot of things like this."

The county Department of Environmental Resources regularly audits and inspects 60 facilities that work with large quantities of the highest tiers of hazardous materials as defined by the California Accidental Release Prevention Program.

Environmental Resource Director Jami Aggers said the regulated chemicals the agency tracks include ammonia and chlorine. Large companies such as E.&J. Gallo Winery, Foster Farms and Simplot are among those monitored. The county does not have a fertilizer manufacturer, but it does have businesses that supply fertilizer in bulk for large agricultural entities.

As part of the CalARP Program, those facilities are inspected and audited once every three years. Part of that audit is to review each facility's safety plan.

The Department of Environmental Resources monitors 2,300 facilities in the county that handle hazardous material, though most are not at the higher CalARP standards.

Ethanol plant not monitored

One of the higher-profile manufacturers that does not fall under Environmental Resources monitoring is the large ethanol plant in Keyes. The plant does not use any of the regulated chemicals the department tracks, though its resulting product is highly flammable.

Since opening in 2008, the facility, situated directly along Highway 99, has been off-line frequently because of ownership and operator changes. It reopened in April 2011 and is operated by Aemetis, previously known as AE Biofuels.

The plant can produce 55 million gallons of ethanol a year and is serviced by the Keyes Fire Protection District. The Keyes department is staffed by 34 firefighters, all volunteers.

Keyes Assistant Fire Chief Royjindar Singh said the department knows it would need to rely heavily on support from other agencies -- including Turlock, Modesto and Ceres -- if there was a large-scale problem at the plant.

The new operators have yet to provide training to regional fire departments about the plant's safety plan and how to handle fires there. No department in the county carries the foam needed to fight an ethanol blaze, which burns differently than petroleum-based fires. Ethanol, a type of alcohol, burns blue and is nearly invisible.

Singh said his volunteer department is in the process of working with the plant to schedule fire and safety training. The plant plans to provide an instructor for a multi-day training session that would include any other interested regional fire departments.

"There was some concern brought up by larger fire departments in the county who we would lean on for mutual aid," Singh said. "There was some concern about training, how ethanol fires work."

The Keyes fire department building is directly across the freeway from the ethanol plant, less than a half-mile away.


(c)2013 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: Copyright Modesto Bee (CA) 2013

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