Firm That Leaked Fumes Will Suspend Use of Chemical

Times Staff Writers

A plastics manufacturing company in Orange will stop using the chemical involved in a vapor leak that forced the evacuation of nearly 300 people until investigators determine what caused the accident, the general manager of the firm, Fiberite West Coast Corp., said Tuesday.

Fiberite, which paid more than $2 million last year to settle a lawsuit over a 1979 chemical accident, will not produce plastics that require the use of the chemical, a phenolic resin, said John Rand, the company’s general manager.

Unlike Past Accidents

Rand said the leak was not similar to past chemical accidents, such as the 1979 chemical cloud that covered nearby schoolgrounds and an experimental chemical mixing on May 12 that overheated in the company’s laboratories and sent fumes into the air around the North Cypress Street plant.


City, county and state investigators on Tuesday began probing what caused about 3,700 gallons of the phenolic resin to overheat and emit chemical vapors from its 6,000-gallon storage tank underneath the plant’s chemical mixing room.

Investigators say the accident, believed to be the first to involve an underground storage tank at the 23-year-old plant, appears so far to be a minor one confined to the grounds.

“Right now, we don’t believe the vapor cloud got beyond the property line, but we need to know how much of this stuff escaped from the property,” said Battalion Chief Douglas Flaherty of the Orange Fire Department.

Fire Investigator James Hamilton said that “it didn’t seem too bad--I didn’t smell anything unusual, and I didn’t see any cloud.”


Flaherty said the byproducts of the heated resin, primarily phenols and formaldehyde, can be toxic over a period of time, but indications are that little of the hazardous material got out of the mixing room.

Authorities have no reports of injuries or ill effects from Monday’s vapor cloud.

From the time they were called to the scene, about 5:45 p.m., until about 9 p.m. Monday, firefighters sprayed water on the door and entryway to the mixing room to force any vapors to the ground.

Rand said Fiberite and the county Health Care Agency’s environmental health division took samples of the water runoff to determine the level of hazardous material the Fire Department captured. Results of Rand’s chemical analysis were not complete Tuesday.


But the environmental health division found contamination in the runoff and in the mixing room.

Starting at 1 a.m. Tuesday, the division brought in Wilmington-based IT Corp. to dike the area, vacuum the contaminant and steam-clean the area, said Steven K. Wong, chief of the division’s hazardous waste program.

“We have given the OK to company employees to do the cleanup inside, and we will go back (Wednesday) to inspect it,” Wong said.

He said the county will evaluate the company’s analysis and, if not satisfied, will do its own chemical analysis.


That the chemical began heating at all puzzled Edward Camarena, director of enforcement for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, another agency investigating the leak.

Tests of Tank

“Unless somehow some impurity or catalyst was introduced into the tank, we believe that it’s difficult for a reaction to have occurred,” he said.

Rand, however, said the tank was sealed and that tests his company took of the chemical before it was put into the tank indicated no impurities or foreign ingredients existed in the batch.


“We’re not going to purchase any more of that material until we find what the cause is,” Rand said. “The tank will be removed, and we will not replace it with another underground tank. In fact, we’re looking at the whole scope of how we store chemicals underground.”

He said other underground tanks might be removed but that tanks containing such solvents as alcohol and methanol will remain.

Fiberite has registered its underground tanks with local authorities, as required by law, he said, and it has undergone annual inspections in which the Fire Department pressurizes the tanks to look for leaks. When the phenolic resin tank was empty two years ago, Rand said, workers went into it to check more closely for leaks.

Other Accidents


Fiberite has been the site of other chemical accidents.

Last May 12, chemists were experimenting with a chemical mix in a 30-gallon drum when the chemical overheated and sent fumes 100 yards off the plant’s property, according to the county’s environmental health division.

Last year, Fiberite paid $2 million to $3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 28 individuals who claimed they were harmed in a 1979 accident when a cloud of steam and chemicals poured from the plant and spread over the Richland High School-Killefer Child Development Center a block away.

The plaintiffs contended that inhaling fumes that included possibly toxic phenyls caused chronic liver disease, peripheral nerve problems, weakened immunity systems, respiratory ailments and birth defects.


Orange Battalion Chief Flaherty said it is doubtful that the latest accident would result in any action to revoke Fiberite’s permit to handle hazardous materials.

“In hindsight, we may not have had to evacuate anybody, but you want to take the precaution when chemicals are involved,” said Orange City Manager J. William Little. “Unfortunately, chemical companies are one of the industries that, no matter how controlled or how regulated they are, something can happen.”