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October 30, 2014

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Disaster preparedness:

PEPCON anniversary serves as reminder: Hazardous materials emergencies could occur in Clark County

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Christopher DeVargas

Authorities shut down the westbound lanes of Interstate 215 near Las Vegas Boulevard after a crash caused a chlorine spill Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The lanes were closed for about two hours. Twenty-five years after an explosion at a chemical plant in the Las Vegas Valley killed two people and injured more than 300, several plants with hazardous materials remain in the area, but monitoring and regulation of those facilities have increased significantly.

Pepcon Explosion

Barbara Hepworth assesses the damage to her home May 6, 1988. Windows and doors of homes and businesses nearby were shattered when two blasts destroyed the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada plant May 4, 1988. Launch slideshow »
Click to enlarge photo

Richard Brenner, the Clark County Fire Department HazMat Coordinator, speaks with the media after about 100 people were treated for breathing difficulties following a chlorine leak Friday, Aug. 27, 2010, at the MGM Grand pool area.

Twenty-five years ago this week — on May 4, 1988 — explosions at the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada tore through the complex, killing two and injuring more than 300.

A dark column of smoke rose from the site, where ammonium perchlorate — used to boost the performance of rocket fuel — was produced. Debris rained down around the area. The force of the blasts shattered windows and doors around Henderson.

Three years after the PEPCON disaster, a 42-ton chlorine leak at Pioneer Chlor Alkali sickened more than 300 people and led to mass evacuations.

Pioneer was in the Basic Management Inc. complex, a 5,000-acre county island surrounded by the city of Henderson; PEPCON was situated nearby. A company originally called Basic Magnesium Inc. built the first chemical plants on the site in 1942.

The two accidents within three years prompted county officials, who have jurisdiction over land-use decisions at the site, to restrict development near the Basic Management complex to create a buffer to minimize injuries from any future accidents.

PEPCON eventually rebuilt in Utah. After the PEPCON blast, Clark County commissioners attempted to encourage development of industrial sites farther away from population centers, and the Apex site was developed north of Las Vegas.

Kerr-McGee, a company that also made ammonium perchlorate did move part of its operation — the storage and mixing facility — to a 3,400-acre site at Apex but left the chemical manufacturing at the Basic Management site. Ammonium perchlorate production ceased at the site in 1998.

Today, companies with the largest quantity of hazardous materials near large population centers in the Las Vegas Valley are still in the Basic Management site or nearby, said Richard Brenner, Clark County Fire Department hazardous materials coordinator.

The site is home to Olin, which bought the Pioneer facility; Tronox, formerly part of Kerr-McGee, and Titanium Metal Corp. The Thatcher Company of Nevada is situated near the site and also works with large quantities of hazardous materials. The potential danger at the facilities is mostly tied to the use of chlorine, which can irritate the respiratory system and eyes and in larger concentrations cause vomiting, lung damage and death. Chlorine gas is a strong oxidizer, which may react with flammable materials.

In 1986, the federal government passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which mandated specific measures to help communities plan for emergencies involving hazardous materials, including establishing emergency response commissions in each state and requiring certain facilities to cooperate with local authorities on disaster plans.

Brenner has been working on plans for hazardous material emergencies for decades and also is part of the Nevada State Emergency Response Commission. During his time working for both Las Vegas and then Clark County, he has worked with facilities around the valley to develop emergency plans and also mitigate the chance of a disaster by encouraging some companies to use different chemicals or processes.

"We have plans for everywhere we know chemicals are stored," Brenner said. "At Olin, we don't just drive onto the facility. They meet you at the entrance, and you meet with their safety people and there is a unified command. They know the process better than we do, so we plan together to address an emergency and get it mitigated."

Brenner said a Henderson Industrial Council that includes plant managers, business owners and other community members meets regularly to talk about issues regarding the plants.

Here's a look at some of the plants and other places in the valley where officials have planned for hazardous material emergencies:

    • Olin Chlor Alkali Products

      Olin bought Pioneer's plant in the Basic Management complex in 2007.

      The company manufactures liquid bleach, chlorine, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid.

      In a Center for American Progress report from 2008, the facility is included on a list of the "101 Most Dangerous Chemical Facilities" in the United States in terms of size, hazardous materials used and proximity to population centers. The report was specifically looking at potential targets for terrorism.

    • Thatcher Company of Nevada

      The Thatcher Company of Nevada is situated near the intersection of the 215 Beltway and U.S. 95, just east of the Basic Management site.

      Thatcher makes liquid bleach using chlorine gas.

      The company's plant is the only other facility in Clark County listed in the Center for American Progress report of the "101 Most Dangerous Chemical Facilities."

    • Tronox

      Tronox, on the Basic Management site, produces electrolytic chemicals.

      The Tronox facility manufactures magnesium dioxide, used in batteries; elemental boron, a component in automotive safety igniters; and boron trichloride, which is used by pharmaceutical and semiconductor companies and in the manufacture of high-strength boron fibers for products including sporting equipment and aircraft parts.

      "Tronox makes oxidizers," said Richard Brenner, Clark County Fire Department hazardous materials coordinator. "To have fire you need fuel, heat and oxygen. When an oxidizer decomposes, it produces heat and oxygen. All you need now is fuel. They are pretty stable unless you get them contaminated. But if they get contaminated, look out, because they can do incredible things."

      Tronox, originally Kerr-McGee, ended the production of ammonium perchlorate at the facility in 1998.

    • Titanium Metals Corp.

      In November, Precision Castparts announced it was buying Timet, as Titanium Metals Corp. is informally known.

      The Henderson facility uses chlorine mixed with titanium ore to get titanium tetrachloride, which, when zapped with electricity, turns into titanium metal and magnesium chloride, Brenner said.

      Titanium metal is used for airplanes, computers, ships, pacemakers, paint and a range of other uses, Brenner said.

      Magnesium chloride is a harmless dust suppressant.

    • Transportation

      The local chemical manufacturers also have to transport their materials. Brenner and his team have devised emergency plans for rail and road accidents involving transportation of those materials.

      "Olin makes chlorine and ships it all over the West," Brenner said. "That's in 90-ton cars that head by rail to Los Angeles or to Salt Lake City."

      Brenner said Tronox used tractor-trailers, and Timet moves its ingots of titanium on flatbed trucks.

      "We conduct commodity flow studies so we know what's moving and how much of it, so we know where our biggest potential problems lie. We plan for these moments, and we even do exercises because of all the chlorine used at these facilities where we train people on using chlorine kits and shutting off chlorine cars."

    • Pipelines

      Pipelines that feed the Las Vegas Valley are another factor for which emergency responders must be prepared.

      One such pipeline feeds natural gas to Southwest Gas. There is a fuel pipeline, owned by Kinder Morgan, that runs from Southern California into Las Vegas. The Kern River Gas Transmission Co. has a pipeline that starts in Wyoming, comes through Las Vegas and ends in Los Angeles. Finally, the UNEV fuel pipeline, from Woods Cross, Utah, to the Apex plant in North Las Vegas, was finished in 2012.

      Brenner said pipelines in the valley do not have some of the corrosion problems found elsewhere because Las Vegas is a newer city. The biggest concern is contractors locating pipelines before digging in the valley.

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    1. I recall driving when the BOOOM occurred. A lady driving nearby asked me what that was. I responded that it must be "one of those factories." She reacted and said her son was in one.... You just never know when short-cuts in safety will impact someone close.