Explosive and lethal chemicals were found illegally dumped Wednesday along Ortega Highway in southern Orange County, the third such discovery in 48 hours, again forcing the road to be closed.
Authorities said late Wednesday night that they had identified between 20 and 30 chemicals at the site, totaling about 100 pounds, many of which were toxic, flammable, corrosive or explosive. This latest discovery occurred even as authorities were trying to determine the source of similar chemicals found in the area on Monday.
Because some of the chemicals would create a toxic cloud if ignited, officials said, they could not blow them up as they had the chemicals found Monday. Instead, a cleanup would take four to six hours.
The chemicals included cyclohexane, hydrofluoric acid, benzene sulfonic acid, sodium methylate and ammonium oxylate. Some of the material had crystalized and was considered potentially hazardous because of the possibility it could emit fumes or explode. A cyanide compound also was found, Orange County Fire Department spokesman Pat Antrim said.
Authorities said the substances were in 30 to 40 containers, ranging in size from a five-gallon, cooler-like box to pint glass and plastic bottles. One of the containers was leaking.
The materials were first spotted in a roadside turnout Wednesday afternoon by a motorist who had pulled off the highway about a mile east of Caspers Regional Park.
The motorist contacted the California Highway Patrol, which notified the Orange County Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team. Also called to the site were county health officials, U.S. Forest Service representatives and Dr. Philip Edelman, medical director of the regional poison center at UCI Medical Center in Orange.
The CHP closed 14 miles of the highway shortly before 9 p.m. with roadblocks at San Juan Capistrano on the west and the mountain village of El Cariso to the east. About 3,700 commuters use the road daily.
The latest find was five miles from the site of a large cache found Monday and very near a second find Tuesday.
State and county investigators Wednesday had begun poring over containers of toxic chemicals found at the first two sites, but the chances of ever discovering who unloaded them are slim, one county official said.
Not Enough Information
“We just don’t have enough information, unless someone saw the truck and got the license plate,” said Robert Merryman, county director of environmental health. “It’s kind of a shot in the dark. But we’re following every clue.”
The investigating team spent most of Wednesday examining the evidence at the Long Beach headquarters of Crosby & Overton, a private waste disposal firm hired to clean up the illegal dump sites discovered earlier this week on Ortega Highway east of San Juan Capistrano.
Spearheaded by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the team also includes the district attorney’s environmental protection unit, county environmental health officials and CHP officers.
Some Chemicals Blown Up
Soon after the first chemicals were discovered, officials determined that some were too unstable to be moved, and a bomb squad from the Sheriff’s Department blew them up early Tuesday morning. The safer chemicals were stored in 55-gallon recovery drums and transported to the waste disposal company’s Long Beach facility.
“We are looking for fingerprints, labels, anything that might identify the source (of the chemicals),” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Diane Stavenhagen Kadletz, head of the special environmental protection unit formed last year to prosecute such cases.
“The Health Department is taking samples of each chemical, and then we can determine whether what’s inside of each container matches the labeling.”
Testing of the samples could take a week, Kadletz added, but in the meantime investigators will attempt to track down the manufacturers of both the chemicals and their containers.
Wide Variety Puzzling
“Some of the containers may have had portions of labels, some had nothing on them,” Kadletz said. “The small jugs didn’t appear to have any markings on them at all.”
The wide variety of chemicals found at the first two sites--ranging from hydrazine, a deadly carcinogen sometimes used as rocket fuel, to ascorbic acid, or vitamin C--still has officials wondering which industries might have had use for such an odd assortment, she added.
“Right now, they are not substances that you would expect to see together,” Kadletz said. One theory, she said, is that the chemicals may have been dumped by a company that had been hired by other labs to dispose of the materials, and was simply looking for a profitable shortcut.
Merryman said the theory was possible but unlikely, mainly because of the small amounts of some of the chemicals. “If somebody was doing a milk run,” he explained, “it seems strange that there were such small quantities. There was less than a pound of hydrazine.”
He added that many of the chemicals appeared to have some pharmaceutical use. But one chemical, propanilanisol, has no known industrial uses at all.
“It releases smoke when it’s heated,” Merryman said. “It looks like it’s better suited for the theater than for a chemical lab.”
Most of the toxic chemicals found on the highway can be legally purchased from thousands of suppliers or can be easily manufactured in a chemical laboratory, according to Tom Twillie, senior chemist for Crosby & Overton.
Individually the chemicals might not be so hazardous, but together they constituted a very dangerous mix, he said, adding: “When you look at the stuff you’re kind of amazed that it was all together.”
The cost of legally disposing of the chemicals would be about $10,000, Twillie said. Since a Class 1 dump site in West Covina was closed to hazardous materials in 1984, the closest disposal sites for solid toxic chemicals are now in Santa Barbara or Kings County, according to Merryman. Other dumps in Northern California still handle liquid wastes, he said.
Crosby & Overton’s bill to clean up the illegal dump sites, store the evidence and dispose of it once the investigation is over could be $25,000, an amount that will come out of the state’s emergency Superfund, Merryman said.
The investigation itself could easily cost the county that much again, he added.
Times staff writer Robert Schwartz contributed to this story.
Toxic waste emergencies in Orange County soared last year. Part II, Page 1.