Lethal and explosive chemicals illegally dumped on the shoulder of Ortega Highway in the Cleveland National Forest were detonated by a sheriff's bomb squad Tuesday morning, just before authorities found a second, smaller dump site a few miles away.
A 14-mile stretch of the road from San Juan Capistrano to El Cariso remained closed until noon Tuesday as sheriff's deputies, firefighters, a hazardous materials team, health officials and highway patrolmen worked through the night on Monday and into a morning drizzle to identify and remove some of the chemicals. But others were too dangerous to be moved and were blown up in a pit at the site at about 8:15 a.m., Fire Department spokesman Dave Pierce said.
"Some of those chemicals posed a real live threat," Pierce said. "They could be fatal if absorbed through the skin or breathing."
A passer-by alerted authorities to the chemicals at about 6 p.m. Monday. About 50 containers ranging in size from one-quart bottles to 30-gallon drums were found at the larger site, about 1.7 miles west of the Riverside County line, Ralph Bates of the county's hazardous materials team said. Sixteen chemicals were identified among them, including rose hips--or Vitamin C--and hydrazine, a rocket fuel used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is used by the space shuttle for hydraulic systems aboard the orbiter and is used on satellites to power the small rockets that keep them on station.
A cardboard box with four small containers of other less toxic chemicals was found Tuesday morning on the shoulder of Ortega Highway about six miles west of the first site. They were not considered dangerous, however, and the highway was reopened shortly before noon, California Highway Patrol Sgt. Ken Daily said.
Crosby & Overton, a hazardous waste disposal firm in Long Beach, was contracted under the state's emergency Superfund to remove the toxic chemicals and clean the two sites, said Robert Merryman, county director of environmental health.
Spokesmen for the fire and sheriff's departments, noting the chemicals' wide range of uses, said they had no theories about who dumped them.
"Those aren't likely to be someone's household cleaners," Bates said, peeling off his protective green suit after examining the second batch of chemicals. "They have a variety of industrial uses, and they were very precisely measured. I couldn't say that the two dumps are linked, but I wouldn't rule it out, either."
Merryman speculated that the chemicals were dumped by "a laboratory cleaning house; like someone wanted to get rid of some stuff so they either hired someone to pick it up or they dumped it themselves."
"I would say it could have developed into a really serious incident. If some hikers had been in the area and jostled this stuff, someone could have been killed. It was done without concern for the safety of the public."
None of the containers bore the names of the source companies. "It doesn't look too promising," Merryman said.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Daily, however, said calls were beginning to come in from people who claimed they saw vehicles unloading material at the small turnoff area near the Riverside County border. "At this point, we're soliciting any information that anybody might have on this," Daily said.
The highway closure forced commuters from Riverside County to take Interstate 15 all the way to the Riverside Freeway in Corona to to get to Orange County. About 3,700 people use Ortega Highway on a normal day, Daily said.
One commuter said he noticed the containers on his way back to Riverside County on Monday and stopped to examine them. "I thought maybe I could take one home as a garbage can, but then I saw the gummy stuff inside and decided not to bother," said R.J. Palacio, a buyer for an electronics company in San Juan Capistrano. Palacio said the cans were not marked as dangerous.
Many of the chemicals, such as benzene, tetrahydrofuran and diethyl sulfate, are toxic, and possibly lethal, if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. One of the most toxic, hydrazine, is a known carcinogen and can self-ignite when exposed to soil. It was already reacting with a leaking container of nitric acid when investigators found the chemicals.
"There was potential for a real big explosion; I don't know just how big," Fire Department spokesman Pierce said.
Pierce said the hydrazine was found in pellet form. But experts familiar with the fuel said that it is a liquid, not a solid, and that they had never seen it in pellet form. Another spokesman for the Fire Department said that while hydrazine usually is found as a liquid, it can crystallize if saturated with an acid.
Times staff writers Lee Dye, Gordon Grant, Kristina Lindgren and Nancy Wride contributed to this report.
ORTEGA HIGHWAY DUMPING
At the first site, 13 chemicals were found in containers ranging in size from 30 gallons to 1 quart:
Hydrazine, a colorless, fuming liquid. Less than 1 pound found.