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  Incident Title
  Investigation Concludes Toner-Cartridge Dust Played Role in Fatal Explosion, $4-million Plus Damage    
  Location Date of Incident
  Richmond, CA, United States 10/26/2000- 2:00 AM
  CSB Incident Number NRC Report Number Board Ref. Number
  2000-4991 None Reported None Reported
  Current Status Date of Report Update
  No CSB Action 4/26/2001 - 6:54 PM
  Incident Types Location Types
  - Explosion Fixed Facility
  Evacuations Injuries Fatalities
  None Reported None Reported 1
  Chemicals Involved
  - Butane
- Toluene
- Xylene
  Description or Latest Development
  -----
Information Added: Thursday, April 26, 2001 - 6:54 PM
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Investigators for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health said that the explosion and fire that claimed one life was related to an accumulation of toner-cartridge dust. They said an electrostatic charge in a grinder at the company may have ignited the explosive toner dust used in copy machines, causing the fire that killed a 26-year-old fork lift operator.

Cal/OSHA fined the company more than $221,000 for, among other items, failing to prevent the dust from accumulating and failing to warn the employees of its fire hazards.

Sam Singer, a spokesman for the company, complained that some of the fines "are high" but said the company was working with Cal/OSHA to prevent similar fires.

MBA Polymers recycles plastic items such as computer cases, telephones and toner cartridges and is considered a pioneer in the field.  But the company has cut its staff by half and reduced the amount of plastic it recycles each month from 700,000 pounds as it revises operations to improve safety, Singer said.

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Information Added: Friday, November 3, 2000 - 1:04 PM
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Richmond Fire Battalion Chief Jim Fajardo said Wednesday that he is revising upward the plant damage estimate to between $4 and $5 million.

One piece of recently purchased equipment damaged in the incident cost the company more than $1 million.

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Information Added: Tuesday, October 31, 2000 - 2:14 PM
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The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) reported that although the smoke from this incident contained elevated levles of toxic compounds, it still fell below safety thresholds set by the state's Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly 200 people sought medical attention for smoke inhalation last Thurdsay, and some health advocates were concerned about the effects on a community dogged by a series of oil refinery accidents in recent years, while questioning efforts to alert residents to the fire.

More than 100 people were treated at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and about 80 were seen at Doctors medical centers in Pinole and San Pablo for respiratory distress.

Elevated levels of toxics like benzene and 1,3-butadiene, both commonly found in burning gasoline, as well as toluene and xylene, turned up.  But the compounds measured one-quarter to one-half of California EPA standards.

"It's not bad, but it's not great either," said Terry Lee, a spokeswoman for the BAAQMD said.

But Karen Susag, community health advocate for Communities for A Better Environment in Oakland, said she is concerned that high levels of dioxin - which the federal EPA has said may cause cancer and which have been linked to other health problems -- might have escaped in the blaze.

"I would be most concerned about the other workers there," Susag said.  "They potentially got a large dose of chemicals, and they are going to have to watch out for their health".

Meanwhile, Doris Silva, an environmental activist from Point Richmond, said she didn't think attempts to alert nearby residents to the smoky fire were enough.  She said many residents received phone calls too late over an emergency notification system.

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Information Added: Friday, October 27, 2000 - 4:20 PM
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Black plumes of toxic smoke rose into the sky above Richmond, forcing 12 schools to shut down, businesses to evacuate and shelter-in-place warnings for residents and workers.

One man was killed in the 2 a.m. explosion at MBA Polymers, a 90,000-square-foot plastics recycling facility.

More than 200 people, including factory workers and firefighters, crowded area hospitals with complaints of irritated throats and eyes, headaches and other ailments.

Coroner's officials said they will not know the cause of death until the autopsy today (10/27/2000).

It was the sixth time in four years that Contra Costa has faced a major accident at an industrial factory or refinery. The fire was hot, and the smoke was black and acrid, said Richmond Battalion Chief James Fajardo.

"We treated it like what it was, a plastic fire in a warehouse," Fajardo said. "We cooled it and then we smothered it with foam."

The morning sky Thursday was full of smoke for thousands of schoolchildren and parents, workers near the factory and residents who fell victim to the whims of a shifting wind that caught many by surprise.

Just before 7 a.m., about 2,400 employees of the Chevron Refinery and adjacent facility were sheltering-in-place after the shifting winds sent smoke toward the refinery. Employees who had to work outside used respirators.

Toll workers on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge were also notified about 9:45 a.m. to leave their booths and take shelter from the smoke, leaving drivers with a free ride across the bridge.

County officials said they did not think the smoke would cause acute health problems. An all-clear was issued at 12:08 p.m., said Jim Gallagher of the county's hazardous materials program.

Had the wind been blowing east after the explosion, instead of toward the Bay, "it could have gotten ugly," said Lew Pascalli, director of the county's hazardous materials program.

More than 50 firefighters responded to the 32-foot-high single-story warehouse, including those from Richmond, Chevron and Contra Costa. The middle section was burned and the roof collapsed. Fajardo estimated the damage at nearly $2 million.

State officials were investigating the cause of the accident Thursday.

An air sample near the explosion showed increased levels "of what we'd expect to see in the burning of plastic: benzene, butane, toluene and xylene," said Terry Lee of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which could fine the company.

Those levels, she said, only reached about "a quarter to a half" of state Environmental Protection Agency standards. The air district could fine the company up to $25,000 for causing a public nuisance and could cite it for air emissions.

The company has no record of penalties by either state or regional environmental agencies. The Bay Air Quality Management District, in fact, did not consider emissions at the facility large enough to require a pollution permit.

The plastic emits toxic fumes when burned, but the plastic itself is not subject to strict reporting requirements for releases, said Eric Jonsson, a county hazardous materials specialist.

Sam Singer, a company spokesman, said MBA was working with new technology it recently installed to grind and separate recyclable materials.

"Whether that had any part in the explosion, nobody knows," he said.

Singer said the company is "deeply saddened" by Spritz's death. "He was someone everyone was close to and was a talented young man."

He said the company would pay for screenings at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond if people believe they suffered from the explosion. Singer also said the company, which employs 75 people, planned to remain in business.

"We've had a real setback here," said a dejected Paul Allen, one of the company's founders.

One MBA employee, Anthony Johnson of San Pablo, said he was standing on a step ladder inside the factory when he saw smoke and then heard an explosion right near a large machine, although he wasn't sure what it was or how it worked. There were about a dozen people in the factory at the time, he said.

"They (led) us to believe that if anything was going wrong with that machine it would automatically shut down," said Johnson, 33. "Obviously, that's not what happened."

When the wind shifted south about 9:15 a.m., employees near Canal and Cutting rushed to their cars and headed out of the area. Many wore masks. By 9:30 a.m., the streets were jammed with cars. Some left on their own. County health workers evacuated others.

Kaiser, Doctors Medical Center San Pablo and the Richmond Health Center treated 240 people who came to the emergency room complaining of irritated throats and eyes. Everyone was then released.

Since 1995, at least five refinery chemical releases, fires and accidents have forced West County students to stay inside or go home, including two at the Chevron refinery in 1999. Schools will be open today.

  Sources ( * indicates the original source) Source Details
 
  • Media
  • Contra Costa Times, 10/27/2000;San Fran. Examiner via NewsEdge 10/27/00; Bay City News Svc 11/1/2000 
     
  • Media - Associated Press *
  • 10/26/2000; 04/26/2001 

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