For the second time in three months, fire broke out at a National City automobile shredder yard late Sunday, forcing the evacuation of about 40 people and raising new concerns about the hazards posed by the Cleveland Avenue business.
The blaze at Pacific Steel Inc. erupted just before 9:30 p.m. deep in the heart of a 30-foot-high pile of "fluff"--the spongy, brown material produced when upholstery, batteries, seats and other car parts are ground up. Fluff is considered hazardous waste in California and is highly flammable.
Fearful that toxic fumes might emanate from the blaze, fire officials immediately evacuated residents in the handful of homes near the company. Traffic on a stretch of Interstate 5 also was restricted to one lane in both directions for about four hours. There were no injuries.
Contained in 30 Minutes
Fire Chief Randy Kimble said firefighters wearing full breathing apparatus had the fire contained within 30 minutes. By 11:30, when the wind changed and the threat of toxic smoke drifting toward nearby houses apparently had passed, residents evacuated from a five-block radius were allowed to return home.
Still, it took six hours of work with heavy machinery to dig into the smoldering fluff pile and thoroughly douse the flames.
"It's a doggone nuisance," Kimble said, describing the burning fluff heap as about 50 feet in diameter at its base. "You take a bite of the pile with a frontloader, hose it down, then take another bite. It's a tedious process."
The fire struck just two days before Pacific Steel officials are due in San Diego Municipal Court on criminal charges of storing hazardous waste on company premises. The misdemeanor complaint against the firm and its president, Eduardo Gurria, alleges that fluff has been knowingly stored at the Pacific Steel yard since June 9, 1986.
Piles Become Hot
Because shredder waste piles become extremely hot and are subject to spontaneous combustion, state law prohibits stockpiling of the material at any facility other than a licensed storage site for longer than 90 days. Deputy Dist. Atty. Josephine Kiernan said Gurria could receive up to a year in jail and a fine of as much as $25,000 for each day he was in violation of the law.
Sunday's fire was the second this year at Pacific Steel, the county's only licensed auto shredder. In May, flames erupted in a scrap metal pile in the firm's yard, prompting the evacuation of about 1,900 people--including 1,700 children from three schools. About one dozen people suffered minor injuries in that blaze.
The incidents have raised warning flags both at City Hall and the National Elementary School District. Parents are concerned about their children's safety, and residents worried about future fires have peppered elected officials with complaints and questions.
Mayor George Waters said that he received 19 calls Monday morning from constituents disturbed by the problems at Pacific Steel. Waters said he, too, is disturbed, and criticized state and county officials for failing to effectively monitor Pacific Steel's operations.
"I'm catching heat for this when it's a problem completely out of my hands," Waters said. "I've seen scrap piles four and five stories high down there and I know that's against the law. It is the responsibility of state and county inspectors to keep an eye on these folks and they're obviously not doing it. I'm a little tired of it."
Waters said the City Council has sent a letter to Supervisor Brian Bilbray and Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) complaining of lax enforcement by state and county officials. "But so far," the mayor said, "we haven't seen much response."
School officials have their own set of worries. Kimball Elementary School houses 400 children and sits just seven blocks from Pacific Steel. Half a mile away are John A. Otis Elementary School and National City Junior High School.
Wayne Ouren, an assistant superintendent at the National Elementary School District, said, "Personally, I'd rather the company wasn't there at all," and called the firm "a definite concern" for district officials.
School Officials Angered
During the May fire, school administrators criticized county health authorities for the confusion surrounding the evacuation effort. Some students were moved to different locations several times and officials were angered because they were not immediately informed of the potentially toxic fumes.
Since then, district officials have met with the fire department for better coordination of their emergency response plans, Ouren said. The district also intends to purchase sophisticated radio equipment that will allow school officials to improve communications with emergency personnel in the event of a fire or other incident.
"I think we've got a good system in place now," Ouren said. "Since we have no jurisdiction over (Pacific Steel), that's really all we can do."
Pacific Steel officials declined to comment Monday.
Fire Risk Top Problem
According to the state Department of Health Services, the risk of fire is the leading problem surrounding the regulation of California's auto shredding facilities, which produce about 200,000 tons of waste annually. Although most companies--Pacific Steel included--use sprinklers to control the heat in the piles, that system is not foolproof.
As recently as the early 1980s, there was an average of 18 to 24 fires annually at Pacific Steel, Kimble said. More recently, modifications at the business have helped reduce the annual average to six, which Kimble said is "still unacceptable."
It was unclear Monday just what threat the fumes from the weekend fire might have posed to surrounding residents.
Kimble said they were "not deadly" and did not pose a significant hazard. The county's Hazardous Materials response team, meanwhile, took no air samples because it lacks the appropriate equipment for general air monitoring. Dan Avera, acting chief of the hazardous materials team, said such equipment is in the budget for purchase next year.
Uncertainty Causes Anxiety
"Uncertainty is the biggest cause of anxiety in these fires," said Gary Stephany, chief of environmental health for the county. "We don't know what's in the fire and what kind of toxics, if any, may be coming off in the vapors."
Jim McNally, a senior hazardous materials specialist with the state health department, said that when burned, the foams and plastics in car bodies can emit fumes that can have immediate health effects--like burning of lungs and eyes--and can be carcinogenic. Heavy metal particles also can be carried on the soot in the thick, black smoke.
"It's potentially a very threatening smoke," McNally said. "It makes me very nervous that all these shredders around the state have these huge piles of fluff just sitting there."
Moreover, water used to extinguish fluff pile fires commonly runs into storm drains, McNally said. Before Sunday's fire, runoff from Pacific Steel flowed into San Diego Bay. But state water quality officials recently ordered a halt to that practice, and a dike was constructed to trap water at the facility so it can be reused to sprinkle the fluff pile.
Problem Since 1984
The fluff problem has dogged the auto shredder industry since 1984, when the state declared the material a hazardous waste because of its high lead content. Before that, Pacific Steel and other companies had disposed of their fluff at relatively low cost in local landfills.
But now, it must be disposed in a licensed hazardous waste dump--at extremely high cost. Most companies have balked at the new regulations. Some truck their fluff to Arizona, where it is not regulated, rather than pay the dumping fees, and others just let it pile up.
Pacific Steel trucks most of its fluff to Mexico. But a temporary halt to that practice imposed by Mexican authorities last year caused a 25,000-ton mountain of fluff--the object of the district attorney's criminal complaint--to grow in the company's yard.