Is Merced County at risk from a fertilizer blast like the one in Texas?

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comApril 22, 2013 

— An enormous fertilizer plant explosion in Texas brought to light challenges faced by agricultural regions of the United States, including Merced County, when it comes to hazardous materials.

Local officials said while a blast could happen anywhere, it can be avoided with proper education, and thorough training and planning.

"When emergency response plans and employee training are carried out, it reduces risks dramatically," said Ron Rowe, director of the Merced County Environmental Health Department.

There are six fertilizer storage and distribution facilities in the county, Rowe said, and they're inspected by the Certified Unified Program Agencies once every three years -- or more often, if needed.

They're also inspected by the Environmental Health Department, he said.

But preventing disasters such as the Texas explosion that killed 14 people begins with solid employee education and training, Rowe said.

"You have to have a good plan. You have to train your employees, and exercise that training and plan repeatedly to avoid mishaps," he said. "If materials are stored, transported and handled correctly, you can reduce these risks."

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Gabriel Santos, coordinator for the Hazardous Materials Response Team, said the facilities are toured each year by his team. During a visit, they educate business owners and develop plans for handling potential disasters.

"If an incident occurred at this facility, how would we approach it?" Santos said. "We try to use the approach of pre-planning and making sure we're working with the facilities. You know you have a hazardous material there, so you need to have a pre-plan in case something occurs."

Santos said the team holds monthly meetings with local first responders to critique past incidents and train for future scenarios.

Incidents such as the Texas explosion help the local team continue their training by learning from other people's experiences.

"Sometimes we forget how susceptible we are," he said. "Those same type of events can occur here, so we can learn from it. We'll compare it to our plan, and could make changes to our response plan."

Merced Fire Department Chief Mike McLaughlin said it's too soon to tell what went wrong in Texas, but he's aware of the risks in Merced County.

"We try to minimize the potential of that happening in Merced County by conducting inspections, and regulating the quantities and types of uses," McLaughlin said. "How it's used is regulated to try to prevent these type of events from occurring."

The Merced County Farm Bureau provides hazardous materials classes at least twice a year, led by the California Safety Training Corp. in Bakersfield.

"We're always concerned about our environment, and we work hard to educate," said farm bureau President Jean Okuye.

It appears that the Texas plant at the center of the massive explosion Wednesday differed in many ways from the Merced County sites, Environmental Health Department director Rowe pointed out.

Merced County's fertilizer sites are not manufacturers or processors, and hold smaller volumes and lower-risk compounds.

Local facilities consistently meet the inspection requirements, Rowe added. "Most of the businesses we visit and inspect do an outstanding job of complying with the regulations."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service