SANTA FE SPRINGS — A recent acid spill from a worn and cracked fiberglass storage tank has prompted local officials to investigate ways to tighten controls on chemical storage systems.
Last week, about 3,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked from an aboveground storage tank at Brown Pacific Inc., a stainless steel and aluminum wire manufacturing plant. Most of the acid was contained by dikes that the firm had built around tanks in the event of an accident, firefighters said. But the spill created a toxic cloud of vapor and forced the evacuation of 2,000 people from nearby homes. No one was injured.
Fire Department investigators said the acid seeped through a crack in the tank. Investigators said they believe the crack was the result of weathering and age. The tank was installed at least seven and perhaps as many as 12 years ago, according to several inspectors from both the Santa Fe Springs and Los Angeles fire departments.
Officials with Brown Pacific said they are trying to find out how old the tank is and why it leaked. Claudia Nagele, vice president of operations, agreed that the hole could have resulted from wear. But she said another possibility is that it popped open when a truck driver who delivered a load of acid pumped too much air into the tank.
David Klunk, a hazardous materials specialist with the Santa Fe Springs Fire Department who investigated the accident, said the department may propose an ordinance that would ban fiberglass storage tanks or require industries to reinforce them with steel.
Klunk said the Fire Department may also establish age limits for the tanks and require that they be recertified every two years.
"Fiberglass is a potential hazard. It is subject to natural weathering. It becomes brittle just like on your surfboard or canoe and will eventually wear through," Klunk said.
The city does not keep records on the age, condition or even the number of tanks within its boundaries, according to officials. Fire Chief Robert Wilson estimates that there are several hundred tanks above the ground in Santa Fe Springs. He said he could not know for sure without a time-consuming computer search.
Industries use aboveground containers to store chemical solutions ranging from harmless cleaning solvents to the highly toxic hydrogen fluoride. Industries must use tanks of different materials for different solutions.
Fiberglass, for example, is commonly used to hold acids, which corrode metal and steel containers. Concern has been focused on underground tanks because their leaks have contaminated water supplies in Santa Fe Springs and other surrounding cities. However, last week's accident has reminded city officials of the potential dangers of aboveground storage tanks as well.
"Motor oils, if they can get into the ground, cause environmental hazards," Fire Chief Wilson said. "The vapor cloud from spills can create toxic hazards. If you were to walk in the vapor cloud, even from this accident the other night, and stay in it, you would have burned your lungs."
The city already has some regulations monitoring aboveground tanks in its Fire Code. But officials concede that more vigilant enforcement is needed to ensure that they are complied with.
The four Fire Department inspectors are so busy that they cannot ensure that the city's businesses have updated their equipment to meet those regulations, city officials said. Until one month ago, in fact, the city had only two inspectors for 3,500 different factories and plants.
As a result, Klunk said, "there's always somebody who falls through the loops."
Brown Pacific violated at least one of the city's regulations, inspectors and company officials agreed. The company had three storage tanks of different acids next to each other, in violation of the newly revised city Fire Code.
While the proximity of the tanks played no role in last week's incident, if the spill had mixed with another of the solutions, there could have been a dangerous reaction, fire and factory officials said.
City officials had inspected the plant, Klunk said, but did not find that violation.
Nagele of Brown Pacific said that the company was never told during the city's inspections that it was in violation of the city's Fire Code. "They come in here regularly," she said. "If there was a problem, they didn't tell us about it."
Nagele also said that it is very confusing for the industry to keep up with the latest revisions of the code. "It's not clear to us what is in the Fire Code, and if they make changes, we're not told when they do and what the changes are," Nagele said.
In the wake of last week's accident, the Fire Department has asked Brown Pacific to make several changes in its storage tank system.
Nagele and fire officials said that the changes required to bring the factory into compliance include:
* Replacement of the cracked tank to meet current specifications and standards.
* Putting the different acid tanks farther apart to avoid harmful mixing.
* Putting placards with the names of the acids in each tank on the containers.