Ventura County fire officials said they are investigating whether an alarm at a Simi Valley textile plant was working when a cloud of poisonous gas leaked from a 30-ton chlorine tank last Thursday, forcing the evacuation of more than 12,000 people.
Fire officials believe that the alarm may have been defective because they first learned of the leak at the plant, Travelin' West Textiles, from a nearby business owner who called to complain of chlorine odors, Battalion Chief Dan Spykerman said Saturday.
There is no evidence that emission of the cloud of chlorine gas from Travelin' West on Easy Street could have been prevented had firefighters learned of the leak sooner, Spykerman said. But authorities should not have to depend on citizens' complaints to learn of emergencies, he said.
Under state law, businesses that use chlorine and other hazardous materials must install leak-detection systems equipped with alarms and maintain them in good condition, Spykerman said. Violating the law is a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum fine of $2,000 and up to two years in County Jail, he said.
Bleaching Waste Water
Travelin' West, which uses chlorine to bleach waste water infused with dye before discharging the water into the sewer, had an alarm attached to the bottom of its outdoor chlorine tank, he said. However, it is unclear if the alarm was activated last Thursday morning, he said.
Executives of Melody Knitting Mills, which owns the Travelin' West plant, could not be reached for comment. Joe Lange, an attorney for the Travelin' West plant, said Wednesday that "nobody in the company received any calls from the alarm company."
If the device at the Travelin' West plant had been working, it would have sounded at the dispatch center of a private alarm company, but not at any of the county's fire stations, Spykerman said. Such alarms are not hooked up to fire stations because firefighters often are out on calls and might not hear them go off, he said.
If the device did go off, the alarm company would have called Richard Bates, owner of the textile plant, or other company officials, Spykerman said. State law does not require business owners to notify authorities in the event of toxic leaks, although it does mandate that they report fires, he added.
"The law only implies that they must report toxic problems, but it's not specifically spelled out like it should be," he said. "I think this will eventually go the way of sprinklers in high-rises: It'll take a disaster to strengthen the law, which is a shame."
Spykerman said officials are reviewing tapes of calls made to the Fire Department last Thursday morning to see whether Bates, or anyone else connected with the textile company, reported the leak. However, it appears that during the hour that followed the 6:30 a.m. call from the nearby business owner, no one telephoned authorities about the leak, Spykerman said. He declined to identify the business owner.
"It is possible that the alarm failed to work until later in the morning, when the gas built up, and that Mr. Bates called us when he was notified of the leak," he said. "But the detection device should have worked from the beginning."
Thursday morning was not the first time that the Fire Department received calls about chlorine odors from the textile plant, Spykerman said.
During the past year, firefighters would arrive at the plant once or twice a month, only to find that the odors were coming from the tank where the dyed water and chlorine were mixed--not from the chlorine tank itself, Spykerman said. The odors were annoying, but not strong enough to be hazardous or to violate pollution laws, he said.
Chlorine, one of the most commonly produced chemicals in the United States, is also one of the hazardous materials most commonly involved in industrial accidents, officials said.
Between July, 1986, and December, 1987, chlorine was named in 43 hazardous-material incidents throughout California, according to a report by the state Office of Emergency Services. Of the 200 chemicals listed in the report, chlorine ranked 11th among those most often involved in industrial accidents, said Fred Lecari, a spokesman for the state agency.
When inhaled, chlorine gas can cause choking and coughing. If breathed in sufficient quantities, chlorine can cause pulmonary edema, or the buildup of fluid in the lungs, which can be fatal.
Last Thursday, 20 people, including five Ventura County firefighters and a sheriff's deputy, were injured after inhaling the toxic gas.
In September, a cloud containing a chlorine compound escaped from a southeast Los Angeles manufacturer of chlorine tablets for swimming pools, forcing the evacuation of about 28,000 residents from the cities of Commerce, Montebello, Monterey Park and unincorporated areas of East Los Angeles.