Tom Butt for Richmond City Council The Tom Butt E-Forum About Tom Butt Platform Endorsements of Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt Accomplishments Contribute to Tom Butt for Richmond City Council Contact Tom Butt Tom Butt Archives
E-Mail Forum
Alert System Fails Again - A Perfect Record

On Monday, I waited at the Cutting Boulevard railroad grade crossing while a switch engine towed a string of tank cars carrying anhydrous ammonia, and I pondered how vulnerable we all are to potential releases when anyone could walk up to these cars and tamper with the hatches and valves.

The next day, we found out, with a different chemical in a different location. I heard the “shelter in place” alert on the radio at 11:30 a.m., more than three hours after the incident was discovered. The alert had the usual useless advice that no one pays attention to, like, “Seal up all the cracks in doors and windows with tape or wet towels.” What a joke!

As usual, the highly touted community alert system failed, this time apparently from human error. Let’s face it, West County residents, particularly those in Richmond, live under a continuous threat of chemical incidents, “protected” by an alert system that has NEVER functioned the way it was intended.

This is not a criticism of Richmond City staff, who apparently did what they were supposed to do once they had the information. It is a criticism of a larger mindset that it is okay to deal carelessly with dangerous chemicals and expose a population to risks without compensation, so long as we have a siren system that doesn’t work. When I was in the army, we got “combat pay” for being in a war zone. Maybe something like that would be appropriate in Richmond, paid for by a tax on those who store and process hazardous chemicals in our city.

'Ball was dropped' in Richmond spill response, police say

By Karl Fischer
West County Times

Article Launched: 05/06/2008 01:41:31 PM PDT


Richmond officials learned of the city's 3,600-gallon toluene spill hours after the first report, and only after federal authorities requested a shelter-in-place order for a nearby neighborhood.

Fire Chief Michael Banks and police Chief Chris Magnus, who say they intend to reserve judgment until the dust settles from Monday's scare near the Parchester Village neighborhood, couldn't say Tuesday where communication broke down.

"It is a little disconcerting. There's no disputing that," Banks said. "Who to put the responsibility on for that, I don't know yet."

Hand crews and vacuum trucks supervised by the U.S. Coast Guard cleaned water and soil along the marshy shore of San Pablo Bay on Tuesday, while booms in the water prevented the chemical's spread and submerged bags of charcoal filtered the tide.

The Coast Guard expects the cleanup to last all week. The East Bay Regional Park District, which Tuesday coincidentally purchased a now-contaminated marsh adjacent to the spill, found no immediate evidence of ecological harm, including to endangered species on the land.

And though the toxic solvent does emit harmful fumes, no one reported being sick.

Had they, Magnus said, city emergency services workers would not have known why.

"From a public safety standpoint, it's hard to understand how a neighborhood, or potentially an even larger area, could be in harm's way without the local jurisdiction being notified," Magnus said.

"It frustrates me that Parchester residents were potentially at risk because information was not properly shared."

Dwight Merrill, owner of The Reaction Products Co. on Morton Avenue, called an environmental cleanup contractor, Safe Harbors, about 8:15 a.m. Monday after discovering a leaking tank on his property, which sits immediately south of the Parchester subdivision.

The leak apparently began after someone cut a cyclone fence during the weekend, snuck in and stole brass valves off five above-ground tanks, Richmond police said. One tank, marked "empty," actually contained thousands of gallons of solvent.

The cleanup contractor recognized the gravity of the problem and told Merrill that he needed to call the authorities, said Randy Sawyer, head of the Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials Program.

Merrill did not return phone calls.

State Office of Emergency Services records show that Merrill called at 10:39 a.m. to report that 500 gallons of mineral spirits leaked into the ground. Five minutes later, he called county Hazardous Materials with the same information, adding that he needed no help because his contractor had contained the spill.

"In this type of case, even if (county) hazardous materials does not go out, there should have been some type of formal notification to the local city authorities," said Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes Richmond.

The spill extended into a drainage ditch that led under railroad tracks to wetlands frequented by fishers and north to Parchester Marsh, home of the endangered California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse, where it began leaking into the Bay.

The cleanup contractor called the U.S. Coast Guard at 11:09 a.m. after finding Reaction Products lacked the money to pay for the job.

A Coast Guard crew boated out from Yerba Buena Island. The crew eventually determined the stuff in the water was toluenediamene — an especially toxic kind of toluene — and its volume more like 3,500 gallons than 500.

The Coast Guard took control of the cleanup at that point, Lt. Cmdr. Arex Avanni said.

At 12:45 p.m., the Coast Guard called the county Hazardous Materials program with its revised diagnosis, requesting the county broadcast a shelter-in-place order to all within 1,000 yards of the spill, according to county records.

Confused by conflicting reports, the county sent a hazardous materials team to the scene and called the Richmond Fire Department about 1:30 p.m.

But according to Richmond police dispatch records, the Coast Guard called the city at 1:34 p.m. to report the incident, prompting Richmond's hazardous materials team to go to the scene.

At 2:06 p.m., the county sounded a siren near Parchester, alerted local media and used an automated telephone dialer to notify nearby residents of the shelter-in-place order.

County crews soon found the chemical was a less-dangerous form of toluene, and testing showed the air was safe to breathe, Sawyer said. So the county lifted the shelter-in-place order at 2:51 p.m.

"I feel the ball was dropped when (Merrill) did not call 911. That would have definitely prompted a different response," said Richmond police Lt. Mark Gagan, department spokesman. "I am frustrated that this threat was not reported to us immediately."

Gioia said the county would organize a community meeting soon to discuss the incident. He said he also intends to review the county's criteria for sending crews to hazardous spills, and for notifying local government about such incidents within their borders.

Staff writer Robert Salonga contributed to this article. Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@bayareanewsgroup.com.