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August 23, 2014

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Where I Stand:

Anger after the explosion’s fallout

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Craig Wallace Chapman / Sun File Photo

Firefighters spray water on twisted metal to keep fire and fumes from escaping at the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada plant May 5, 1988.

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Dear readers,

On this weekend’s 25th anniversary of the explosion at the PEPCON industrial plant — a mighty blast that killed two people, injured several hundred and blew out windows throughout the valley — I am ceding my normal column space to my late father, Hank Greenspun, who was the editor and publisher of the Sun at the time.

In the wake of the explosion of ammonium perchlorate, Hank voiced concern that Southern Nevadans were in harm’s way because of their proximity to industrial manufacturing. Hank excoriated a neighboring company that also manufactured ammonium perchlorate, Kerr-McGee, for reopening even before the cause of the PEPCON blast was known. A year later, Kerr-McGee began shifting its operations to Apex, an industrial zone created by Clark County about 15 miles northeast of Las Vegas, to put distance between heavy industrial uses and the county’s growing communities. PEPCON relocated to Utah.

Here is Hank’s editorial, published May 12, 1988:

•••

Click to enlarge photo

Hank Greenspun, Las Vegas Sun founder

Thou shalt not kill.

There must be a higher authority than a greedy, soulless, out-of-state corporate structure that insists on placing Nevada citizens in peril of their lives.

It’s barely a week since horrified spectators watched huge fireballs reaching toward the sky as black, billowing poison smoke spiraled upward like some death cloud. Explosions ripped the valley and for hours, fear of a gruesome death toll clutched the hearts of all who watched in helpless terror.

The explosion and fire that leveled PEPCON and the Kidd marshmallow factory touched the likes of every resident in the valley.

The first proper, decent act of Kerr-McGee officials was to suspend manufacturing of the deadly ammonium perchlorate until they had an opportunity to learn what caused the explosive disaster at their sister producer, PEPCON. In announcing their intention to await official investigative procedures of the tragedy, the company acted responsibly.

But firing up the ammonium perchlorate process without notice less than a week later is reprehensible beyond measure.

The fire department, EPA and other official investigative bodies are still sifting the ashes at PEPCON for clues as to what caused the bomb blast that shook our community and destroyed homes, schools, buildings and lives of valley residents. The activity is proceeding slowly, partly because the process demands precision and study and because the exact extent of the contamination at the site is not known.

It may be days or weeks before the cause of the blasts is revealed and protective measures, if there are any, can be employed to assure Clark County citizens that their worst fears will not be realized with a repeat of last week’s disaster.

Can responsible people allow Kerr-McGee to go forward with its production of ammonium perchlorate in the face of all that’s known and unknown? What parent can forget the tear-streaked faces of the little children cowering under desks and tables in the schools that suffered blast damage? And who will ever forget the picture of the little baby who, hours after entering this world, was pelted with flying glass, suffering physical harm and who knows what mental scars during her first day of life on Earth?

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 »

Kerr-McGee’s decision to resume production without the benefit of knowing what caused the explosion is an act of barbarism. Its unfathomable actions remind us of the unanswered questions surrounding the mysterious death of Kerr-McGee’s Oklahoma employee, Karen Silkwood.

Karen, who was contaminated with plutonium, died in a mysterious car accident while on her way to meet with a New York Times reporter. Plant records she carried in her car were never found.

Kerr-McGee officials deny suggestions that the Defense Department pressured them into the immediate, clandestine restarting of the operation to avoid a shortage of oxidizer for shuttles, MX missiles and other defense programs. While there are published reports from Pentagon and space agency spokesmen that there is enough fuel on hand for at least a year’s defense-related activity, it is difficult to determine where truth lies. Regardless of the accuracy of the fuel status, are there not other, less life-threatening alternatives for our defense needs?

Are we again going to let the Washington bureaucracy tell us we have to destroy ourselves because of a speculative national defense effort? Are we going to allow an out-of-state corporate boardroom to give orders for our own deaths? They are demanding that our children face a life of never-ending peril.

We cannot permit them to do this. We do not have to accept these orders. We live in a democracy where sane human beings do not have to sit idly by while our government decrees our potential extermination.

Kerr-McGee must be closed without delay and, if necessary, rebuilt at another remote site.

We sympathize with those whose jobs will be temporarily lost. They should be given every assistance by relief agencies. When the plants are relocated many miles away from the population center, their jobs will be there for them and they will do what Nevada Test Site workers do — travel to work by bus or car.

So far, one man has stood up like Horatio at the bridge.

County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury has called on every power he can muster — fire, police, law and other public officials — to keep the plant from reopening. He requested a meeting at Kerr-McGee with the Clark County fire chief at 5 a.m. Wednesday and later called on County Manager Pat Shalmy and District Attorney Rex Bell to pursue legal action.

No one else seems to have the desire or the ability to do what is in the health and safety interests of Clark County residents. We must not forget that if the explosion occurred this Wednesday instead of last, there would not have been winds to carry the toxic fumes far from our valley. Thousands of residents would have suffered dramatic injuries had the hydrochloric acid hung lazily over this valley for any length of time.

Commissioner Woodbury is a father. He understands the devotion parents have for their children and the desire to keep them from harm.

It is far better to drive by our schools and see beautiful little children playing joyfully in the schoolyard than watch in horror as charred of mangled bodies and blinded wounded are carried from a disaster area.

Like the sufferer of a mild heart attack, we have been warned that we cannot continue to live as we have done in the past. We simply cannot allow Kerr-McGee to continue at its present location, nor can PEPCON be given permission to rebuild close to a populated area.

The lesson is a starkly and devastatingly told in the ashes of PEPCON and in the hearts of the families who lost loved ones. We simply cannot allow a time bomb to tick away in the heart of any Southern Nevada community.

This is not a judgment to be based on government defense needs, speculative or real, or financial considerations. It is a choice between good, wholesome life or the horrible, dreadful holocaust of death.

There is no more time to think. It is time to act.

A fire Wednesday at Kerr-McGee’s neighbor, State Industries, could have been the cause of a second and far more catastrophic explosion ... while authorities are still wondering what caused the first.

The city of Henderson, whose residents felt the brunt of the disaster but by no means are alone in their continuing fear of further peril, should act immediately to demand that the Clark County Commission close the plants.

There is no more time to waste. It is a matter of life and death

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  1. Las Vegans complain about the pig farms smell. Pigs never killed and injured anybody like hazardous chemicals do.

    Carmine D