The leak began slowly, just a trickle of chemical mist wafting from the top of a processing tower at a Unocal Corp. refinery near San Francisco Bay.
There was an initial flurry of concern, a refinery-wide emergency was declared and the county health department was notified. But as a result of bad decisions and missed chances, the leak of toxic chemicals continued for 16 days last summer.
Hundreds of people in Crockett and Rodeo, where the refinery is located, and dozens employees of the refinery complex suffered nausea, nosebleeds and headaches immediately after the leak. Some say they still have eye problems, including one person who has gone nearly blind, while others have suffered miscarriages, fetal deaths, rashes and fainting spells.
Even pets and farm animals are sick or dying, they say.
"We're worried," said Jody Mechling, 32, a dog groomer who said she suffers from migraine headaches and vomiting. "We want to know, when are we going to start feeling better? What will happen in the future? I worry about my two small kids. Who's to say they're not going to be sterile because of this? Who's to know?"
While doctors cannot directly link their problems to chemical exposure, more than 1,000 people are suing, attorney Scott Cole said.
In addition, the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office is conducting a criminal investigation with the Health Department and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
Six months before the leak, the company decided to delay a routine overhaul of the 180-foot hydrogen processing tower from February to October, 1994. The equipment was working fine and looked like it would hold up, company spokeswoman Karen Rodgers said.
But a source close to the investigation said that an overhaul would have turned up evidence of developing problems if it had been done earlier. The source asked that his name not be used.
Production was booming and employees stood to gain bonuses under a "Pay for Performance" program if it continued until the newly rescheduled maintenance, according to a memo workers received three weeks before the release.
"With (maintenance) scheduled for October, 1994, we will need to stay above the year-end (pay for performance) target going into the (maintenance), since gasoline, jet fuel and diesel fuel production will greatly drop off during this 37-day turnaround," the Aug. 1 memo said.
Rodgers said that couldn't have played a part in the decision to keep the unit going because safety violations would have negated the "Pay for Performance" program.
The leak started Aug. 22, when steam, carbon dioxide and traces of a solution called Catacarb began escaping from a small hole near the top of the 180-foot tower. The solution is used to remove carbon dioxide from hydrogen which, in turn, is used to remove sulfur from gasoline.
Unocal notified the county health department as required, but said the leak didn't pose any danger to workers or neighboring communities. They started to turn off the unit, but on-site safety officials decided after many meetings and discussions that the release was too small to warrant shutting down, notifying nearby residents or telling other agencies.
Over the next 16 days, health and safety officials at the company allowed 100 tons of the solution, which contained Catacarb 100, Catacarb 274 and Diethanolamine, to leak from the tower.
"Material data safety sheets" on the premises warned that those three chemicals could, in their undiluted form, cause blindness and death. But Unocal officials believed the release was within acceptable levels because the amounts of the three chemicals in the Catacarb solution were low and heavily diluted with water, Rodgers said.
Still, Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa County's assistant health services director, said more should have been done.
"I think it's definitely a problem to release tons and tons of material that's toxic or potentially toxic over an entire community, not identify this and not notify the community or the health department (of the severity of the situation)," he said. "I think that's a major problem and I consider that to be very serious."
Company managers sent memos to employees seven days into the release, saying the solution was not harmful.
As the leak continued, some employees became worried about their health. But they were afraid to say anything for fear of retribution, according to an internal memo obtained by the Associated Press.
"As some of us told the investigation, we were not willing to jeopardize our jobs by individually insisting on shutdown of a unit making a quarter-million dollars daily when the company and all their experts said it was safe to keep going," said the memo signed by 15 employees.
Company spokesman Lon Carlston said those employees would have been welcome to speak out. Unocal doesn't tolerate retaliation against whistle-blowers, he said.
Those same employees said in their memo that the leak was worse than company officials let on.
"Not only our comments in the observation log, but the regular test results on the Catacarb show that the leaking plume was serious and chemical days before Labor Day weekend," they wrote.
In response, Carlston said the exact time when the leak worsened is under investigation.
On Sept. 4, two weeks after the release began, one employee complained of sneezing and watering eyes and residents noticed a sticky substance on cars and windows.
By then, the leak had grown so bad that employees were ordered to hose the cloud of toxic steam out of the air to prevent contaminants from raining over neighboring towns.
It was only after repeated complaints from employees at a neighboring terminal on Sept. 6 that managers shut down and notified other concerned agencies.
Eight employees have been disciplined, ranging from demotions to reassignments, Rodgers said. And the company could face fines in the millions of dollars for creating a public nuisance, air quality district spokeswoman Teresa Lee said.
Unocal has taken responsibility for some of the illnesses. It has issued repeated apologies and funded a medical office where people can go for treatment by specialists.
The county has come under criticism for not keeping a closer eye on the leak.
Brunner says Unocal misled county officials by saying at first that the problem was small and contained within the refinery. He said that with more than 1,000 leaks each year, most of which never become a problem, his agency cannot check every leak.