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Fire Focuses Attention on Gap in Data

Times Staff Writer

Four months ago--fearing a fire, spill or explosion involving deadly chemicals that could not be quickly identified--the City of Anaheim began asking businesses that handle hazardous materials to submit reports on those chemicals to the city.

Under the plan, firefighters and other emergency workers would have information on file on chemicals stored in the city and potential hazards they might present should anything go wrong.

Over the weekend, something went wrong. A fire broke out in the 5,000-square-foot warehouse of an Anaheim agricultural fertilizer and pesticide supplier, spewing toxic fumes into portions of three cities and launching what officials describe as Orange County’s worst hazardous materials accident.

Computer Problem

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The Larry Fricker Co. had not yet been asked to file a report with the city on the deadly organophosphates, ammonium nitrate and methyl bromide stored in the warehouse. Even if it had, the city’s computer system is not capable of storing such information so that it can be quickly retrieved.

In fact, fire officials have been unable to retrieve the results of the company’s most recent fire inspection from the department’s outmoded computer system and are relying on a June, 1983, inspection sheet, Deputy Fire Marshal Gail McCloud said Tuesday.

As a consequence, fire officials were still working early this week to identify the 80 to 90 different chemicals they now believe are involved in the Fricker Co. fire.

‘Trying to Identify’

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“I will tell you right up front: We had no idea going in of each and every thing that was in there,” said Jeff Bowman, suppression battalion chief for the Anaheim Fire Department. “We had a very generalized idea of what was in there, but three days into the incident, we’re still trying to identify everything.”

While Anaheim officials said the lack of advance knowledge about chemicals stored at the warehouse did not significantly impair their firefighting work, the problem has led to renewed calls throughout Orange County for ordinances requiring businesses to alert local government to potential chemical hazards.

“It is absolutely critical that agencies responsible for suppressing emergencies like this have that data because otherwise, the emergency may be prolonged unnecessarily,” said county Supervisor Bruce Nestande, who proposed a mandatory hazardous materials disclosure ordinance for the unincorporated areas in 1983. “It may even have been fought more efficiently had those that went there known the composition of what was in place,” Nestande said.

At the suggestion of Supervisor Harriett Wieder, the Board of Supervisors directed the county Fire Department to launch discussions with Orange County’s 26 cities aimed at setting up a countywide inventory of hazardous materials.

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“When the fire first started on Saturday, they didn’t even know (what they were dealing with) until it was literally burning up in front of them. Had they known ahead of time, it might have been addressed and treated differently,” Wieder said.

Irvine Is Only City

Irvine is the only city in Orange County that requires businesses to file regular reports on hazardous materials, though a number of cities throughout California, including Santa Clara, San Diego, Santa Monica and Vallejo, have similar ordinances.

Orange County stopped short of adopting a mandatory disclosure ordinance in 1983, partly because of objections from industry groups that trade secrets might become available to the public. Industry representatives objected even after Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove) introduced a bill--which died in committee--that would have exempted such reports from public disclosure, county officials said.

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Accordingly, the county adopted a program that officials believe will go a long way toward providing emergency officials with the information they need: a computerized data bank, immediately accessible to all emergency officials, stocked with information on hazardous materials gathered during regular Fire and Health department inspections.

The program is able to gather as much information as is available to county officials through state health and fire codes, but it lacks the enforcement power of a mandatory disclosure ordinance that, among other things, can impose criminal penalties on companies that fail to submit information.

“These systems are only as good as the people who own the companies and their willingness to reveal and the accuracy of the information they provide us,” county Fire Chief Larry Holms acknowledged Tuesday. And fire officials--hampered by a lack of inspectors and adequate funding--have surveyed only about half the 17,000 properties targeted for review for potential inclusion in the computer data bank since the program took effect in January.

Mandatory Ordinance Issue

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But Fire Marshal Michael Cate said the system will go a long way toward aiding emergency workers throughout the unincorporated area and the 10 cities that contract with the county fire department for fire services--Irvine, San Juan Capistrano, Villa Park, Yorba Linda, Placentia, Cypress, Los Alamitos, Seal Beach, Tustin and La Palma.

Nestande said Tuesday he still believes the county should adopt a mandatory reporting ordinance similar to the one adopted in Irvine in December of 1983. “I’m not satisfied with ours at all. I think there ought to be full disclosure; I think it ought to be mandatory disclosure, and I think we should attach criminal penalties to it,” he said.

Sylvan Hersh, who manages Irvine’s program, said 135 companies have filed reports so far, representing all companies that the city believes to be potential toxic threats.

Anaheim for the last four months has had a voluntary program that encourages businesses to file copies with the city of hazardous materials reports compiled as a result of state and federal Occupational Safety and Health Act regulations. Those reports are then entered in a “pre-fire” plan prepared for all major fire threats within the city, said McCloud.

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“It’s a voluntary program at the present time. We say, ‘Please may we have these things,’ ” said McCloud, adding that he knows of no businesses that have refused to comply. Still, because the reports are requested only during periodic fire inspections, the city has accumulated them from only about 5% to 10% of the businesses potentially affected.

Thousands of Products

Anaheim Fire Chief Robert Simpson said Tuesday that while he favors full disclosure of toxic substances by businesses, he questions the practicality of a mandatory disclosure ordinance. “What would we do with it? You’re talking thousands of products. We have no way of dealing with that,” he said.

Mayor Don Roth said he would support a disclosure ordinance but wants the South Coast Air Quality Management District to review the recent disaster first. As chairman of the four-county district, Roth said, “We have been pushing strongly for cities and counties to make an inventory of all these materials . . . . We need to get a handle so that if we have a spill or a fire, we know what’s out there.”

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City officials say there were no hazardous materials reports on file from the Larry Fricker Co., probably because the company’s annual fire inspection was not due until July or August, when the reports would have been collected. But because of computer problems, fire officials have not been able to locate even Fricker’s 1984 inspection report, McCloud said.


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