Thousands of hazardous substances are transported through Orange County on any given day, according to state and local officials, but those charged with protecting the public from spills say they don't have the information they need to plan for emergencies.
"We don't know if we're capable of responding adequately to an accident because we don't know the magnitude of some of these shipments," said Hugh Wood, director of Orange County's hazardous materials program.
Transportation of hazardous materials has drawn widespread attention among government officials recently after disclosures of shipments of cryogenic fluorine through Orange County and rocket fuel through Los Angeles County. Since 1982, six shipments of cryogenic fluorine, owned by the Air Force, have been trucked on local freeways through the heart of Orange County to a lab in San Clemente.
Fluorine, chemists say, is one of the most dangerous substances known, and a spill could require an immediate evacuation within 3.9 miles. A major spill could dissolve asphalt freeway lanes and spread clouds of lethal fumes. Yet local authorities say they are given no information on when or where trucks carrying fluorine are crossing the county.
In an attempt to fill the information vacuum, the Board of Supervisors has asked Wood and other county officials to determine immediately whether the county's emergency response teams are capable of handling hazardous materials in a serious accident. But that has proved to be a frustrating assignment.
"Nobody can put their hands or fingertips on any information, since shippers don't have to tell anyone what they're doing. . . . All you can do is go with what you've experienced with accidents in the past," said Wood.
Kent Milton, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, the agency responsible for licensing haulers of hazardous materials, said: "There's no requirement that any shipper report, so we can only speculate."
Nonetheless, Milton said, it is evident that thousands of hazardous substances are being shipped on county freeways every day. Trucking firms that haul hazardous materials are required by state and federal law to clearly mark shipments with standardized placards. That allows hazardous materials teams to assess the danger immediately upon arriving at the site of a spill, but it does not help them plan for potential emergencies.
The quantities of hazardous substances being shipped are startling.
"We think that about two-thirds of all the general freight being hauled at this time is classified as hazardous materials," said Elmer Brown, director of government relations for the California Trucking Assn., an industry trade group.
State and federal agencies list about 10,000 substances as hazardous. Federal regulations define a hazardous material as a substance the government has decided can pose "unreasonable risk to health, safety and property when transported in commerce, and which has been so designated."
In a report late last year by the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans said there were 342 reported incidents of hazardous material spills or leaks on state highways in fiscal 1984-85.
"Considering the volume of hazardous materials transported in California, these incidents and accidents are relatively infrequent . . . (but) due to the hazardous nature of the materials being transported . . . even one incident or accident could result in catastrophic consequences to people and property," the report said.
Talcum Powder on Lists
Everything from rocket fuel to talcum powder is on state or federal lists of hazardous materials, said Karen E. Rasmussen, spokeswoman for the trucking association. Talcum powder is listed because a large bulk shipment could produce explosive dust.
"Rocket fuel is no more dangerous than a lot of other things we're carrying up and down the roads," said Michael J. Donahue, operations manager at U.S. Services Inc., a Corona hazardous waste trucking firm.
Hazardous wastes, composed primarily of dangerous by-products of manufacturing processes, are subject to special regulations governing packing, shipping and disposal that do not apply to haulers of hazardous materials.
The Legislature has given shippers of hazardous materials so much leeway in choosing their own routes that even substances manufactured as explosives--such as dynamite, rocket fuel, nitroglycerin and black powder--are approved for shipment on any freeway in Orange County.
On Jan. 1, a new section of the California Motor Vehicle Code that expressly empowers the CHP to designate routes for hazardous materials took effect. But CHP spokesman Milton said the agency has not yet used the new section, in part because of a long list of conditions in the law that are difficult to meet.