If the toxic blaze that drew emergency crews from three counties to a Saticoy chemical plant last week had occurred 10 years ago, firefighters might have treated it as just another routine call.
The 1,500 residents sent fleeing for shelter probably would have been allowed to stay put. The two fire trucks that were left at the site for three days while they were checked for poisonous residue probably would have been driven off. And the charred and potentially contaminated debris being studied by scientists probably would have ended up in a trash dumpster.
"Ten years ago, the Fire Department would have just hosed it down and washed everything into a storm drain," said Greg Smith, a toxics specialist with the Ventura County Department of Environmental Health. "Fortunately, there's more sensitivity now."
That new-found awareness has helped transform incidents such as the April 10 blaze at Pacific Intermediates into full-blown emergencies, turning midnight evacuations and moon-suited cleanup crews into increasingly familiar sights.
Nonetheless, fire and health officials throughout the county insist that hazardous spills are not on the rise.
Despite recent, highly publicized leaks of volatile goos and gases, they say, it is merely our heightened sensitivity to the dangers of such substances that often creates the perception of a toxic siege.
"We need to realize that we've always had these things," said Santa Paula Fire Marshal Robert Hall.
"Before, we just weren't aware," said Brian Clark, the hazardous materials officer for the Ventura Fire Department. "Now, small incidents become larger because we're changing the way things are done."
None of which is much comfort, however, to the hundreds of families forced from their homes east of Ventura for eight hours by last week's blaze, or the 30 firms in the J. R. Business Park that were shut for several days.
"Nobody really realizes what's there, but then one day--boom--and it goes up," said Gary Parker, co-owner of Gold Coast Cabinets, which is near the chemical plant. "I always thought of what they were doing there as being pretty mild . . . but that could have been devastating."
Environmentalists, who have long complained about even small amounts of hazardous material, also found little comfort in the notion that toxic emergencies seem only to have increased as our awareness has.
"To say we're just noticing it more should not imply that it's an acceptable state of affairs," said Don Strait, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has offices in San Francisco and New York. "These things should not be happening."
But they do happen, and with startling frequency. Just last Thursday, five people were sent to the hospital and 175 were evacuated when several cases of the pesticide malathion were spilled in the back room of a Thousand Oaks K mart.
Leak at Landfill
The day before, one employee was sent to the hospital and dozens of garbage trucks were rerouted when a leak was discovered in a chlorine tank at the Oxnard landfill.
And in January, more than 12,000 people fled for cover when a cloud of poisonous chlorine leaked from a Simi Valley textile plant.
"Sometimes I wonder who the hell is watching the store?" said Jim Keenan, the manager of two Moorpark condominium complexes, both of which, in separate incidents, were jeopardized by negligent truck drivers hauling hazardous liquids about a year ago.
Despite such incidents, county officials say they have been making quiet progress over the last few years through a combination of education and enforcement.
The Ventura County district attorney's office in 1985 established an environmental protection unit, which is prosecuting three cases and is investigating 35 others, including Pacific Intermediates.
In addition, environmental health officials in 1984 started a voluntary program to encourage businesses to use fewer toxic materials. Since then, the amount of hazardous waste produced in the county has plunged from about 65,000 tons annually to about 25,000 tons last year. During the same time, toxic waste in the state has remained steady, between 1.6 million and 1.8 million tons per year.
"Ventura County has really done an excellent job," said Jim Marxen, a spokesman for the toxics division of the state Department of Health Services. "A lot of other counties just haven't awakened yet."
The impetus for most enforcement efforts was a 1985 addition to the state Health and Safety Code that required local governments to regulate any business handling more than 55 gallons, 500 pounds or 200 cubic feet of a hazardous substance.
As part of the program, businesses need to disclose all toxic substances above those quantities on their premises, provide proper storage facilities, develop an emergency evacuation plan and offer training in safety procedures to all employees.