State authorities are expected to issue citations after a two-month investigation into possible safety code violations and other irregularities that may have caused a flash fire that killed two workers at an Orange County Sanitation District plant in Huntington Beach.
Jim Brown, district manager of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health division, said it was likely that the agency would issue the citations against either the sanitation district or an Ontario-based engineering firm that employed the two workers who were severely burned in the Feb. 2 accident and later died of injuries.
The sanitation district has been conducting its own investigation of the fire but is not expected to make the findings public until after Cal/OSHA authorities issue their report, officials said.
Meanwhile, sanitation district staff members have recommended that the same Ontario engineering firm, Pascal and Ludwig Engineers, be awarded a new $1-million contract for future construction work, even though both investigations have not been completed.
The staff recommendation has rankled some district directors who have delayed a vote on the contract until the investigations are finished.
“Most directors have been surprised that things have not been brought forward to us,” said Orange City Councilman Fred L. Barrera, one of the district’s 42 directors, referring to the accident. “We’re all very concerned about it.”
Barrera declined to discuss details of the district’s investigation and deliberations about the engineering contract, referring all inquiries to sanitation district attorneys.
But another director, Irvine Councilman Barry J. Hammond, said the February fire and concerns about safety and other issues will likely be studied further in a recently ordered audit of the district.
“We have asked for a full evaluation of our management practices,” Hammond said. “There are concerns about a few projects in particular, and this (fire) happens to one of them.”
The audit and review of the fire come as the Orange County district attorney’s office has been reviewing unrelated allegations that district employees had improperly accepted gifts from contractors doing business with the district.
The district attorney’s inquiry was confirmed by prosecutors and in a letter Wednesday to the sanitation district from an attorney representing Dr. Louis Sangermano, a sanitation district laboratory manager.
Attorney Mark H. Freeman wrote that Sangermano has been “working with the Orange County district attorney with its investigation of certain illegal activities within the county sanitation districts. . . . " At the same time, Freeman stated, that Sangermano has been the “object of unwarranted internal investigations, harassments, retaliations and other acts of misconduct” by the district.
The letter asks that district officials take steps to relieve the “stressful conditions” in which Sangermano must work.
In the Cal/OSHA inquiry, Brown said the agency has “been looking at” both the sanitation district and the engineering firm on various code-compliance issues related to safety standards, employee training and equipment in its investigation of the accident, which claimed the lives of Robin Miller, 37, and Joe Patterson, 32, both of Rancho Cucamonga. Both were employees of Pascal and Ludwig.
The fire occurred while Miller and Patterson were working in a seven-foot-deep concrete channel at a sewage treatment plant at Brookhurst Street and Pacific Coast Highway.
At the time, the workers were using a hammer, similar to a jackhammer, to install a valve. Officials said that a combustible oxygen mixture is used in the sewage treatment process, but it was not known whether a possible spark from the hammer could have ignited the gas, causing the fire.
“There are some things that we will report, but those are things I cannot comment on at this time,” Brown said.
Alan Ludwig, the engineering firm’s chief executive officer, said the firm has been in contact with Cal/OSHA officials, adding that he “would not be surprised” if the agency’s findings went against the company. He declined to comment on what those findings could involve.
“Two guys died there,” Ludwig said. “They were good workers, longtime employees. They are missed. Eventually it will all be known.”
Just a month after the accident, with the Cal/OSHA investigation in its early stages, Ludwig’s firm was recommended by sanitation district staff members for a separate $1-million construction and seismic retrofitting project at the district’s Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach plants.
Directors said the recommendation was questioned because of the pending accident investigation, and the contract award was delayed. Wednesday, directors again recommended that the contract be delayed until the investigations are completed.
“Several directors are concerned about this,” said another director who asked not to be identified. “We felt we should have some answers on this incident before we go forward.”
Ludwig said he was aware that the district had delayed its action on the pending $1-million contract, but did not know that the delay was related to the February accident.
“We were given no notice about why (the contract) was deferred,” Ludwig said. “We are hopeful that it will eventually be approved.”