Lyon fire officials will put off decision on plant explosion until investigation complete

DAYTON - Fire district officials will put off making any recommendations regarding a local gas manufacturing plant until the investigation into the recent explosion is completed.

"There is a comprehensive investigation going on involving our department, ASG and many outside agencies," Central Lyon County Assistant Chief Mark Darragh said. "Staff cannot comment at this time."

On Wednesday, members of the Central Lyon County Fire District Board allowed the approximately 25 people in attendance to air their concerns and ask questions of Advanced Specialty Gases officials.

Supporters of keeping the company in the community wondered why, if emergency measures worked according to plan, the company should be asked to leave. Detractors said the presence of the nitrogen trifluoride manufacturing plant in a residential area was too much of a risk to themselves and the children at the nearby elementary school.

Company President Michael Koonce said the July 30 explosion released about 10 pounds of nitrogen trifluoride into approximately a 30-yard air zone.

"The threat zone was well within the perimeter of plant property and all safety systems worked according to plan," he said. "There was no release of hydrogen fluoride or ammonia. We have ceased production at this point and will not resume until cause has been determined."

Some do not want production to resume, at all, at least not in the plant's present location.

Developer Bill Miles, a supporter of ASG when it was approved in 1996, now wants the company to move from the area.

"I applaud Chief Driscoll for saying this company does not belong here. I feel you are damaging the property values in the area. You have a black cloud over the facility because of the explosion," Miles told Koonce. "You have some of the best safeguards in the world and somewhere along the way you missed some things. You blew the roof off a building. I, as a business person in the community with land in the area, say it is time to work with you to move to a more suitable area of the state."

Miles also challenged the design of the building, particularly the roof.

At a recent Dayton Regional Advisory Board meeting, Driscoll strongly stated he does not want ASG in the community, saying, "It is a mistake that needs to be remedied."

A letter from developer Jim Bawden's attorney requested an investigation and said Bawden would support a revocation of the special use permit if ASG is in non-compliance. If they are in compliance, and the special use permit cannot be revoked, he wants conditions to be added to assure problems do not occur in the future.

Employees of the plant claim the roof blew off "because it was supposed to," and that everything went according to the Emergency Management Response Plan.

On site at the time of the explosion, Operations Manager Art Merrill said he immediately hit the emergency shut down button and proceeded to follow prescribed safety procedures. Once he accounted for the two other employees on duty at the time, he called 911.

"The one employee who was outside at the time was contacted to come into the plant. A man knocked on the door and said there was a fire in the field. I called the county regarding the emergency and went about securing the plant," Merill said.

He noted that paramedics were set up down the road from the plant within three to four minutes. He informed them by radio of the situation and, after securing the plant, went out to put out the fire.

Area emergency responders, including the Central Lyon County Fire Department, have an agreement with ASG that they will not enter the site until assured the air has been cleared and hazardous material secured.

Those living in the immediate area expressed concern with the possibility of a "worst-case scenario," who would be affected by it and the potential threat to Sutro Elementary School and surrounding homes.

Sutro area resident Chester Sikora asked, "Has this been prepared for? Has a Risk Management Plan been filed with the state, as required? How will the plan affect my property values?"

Koonce said a "worst-case scenario" would be the full release of the hydrogen fluoride from the onsite storage tanks. This would result in a two-mile threat zone - a single line in the direction of the wind, not a radius. Systems are in place to make sure one does not occur.

"We design around this scenario and the safety system is checked monthly. It was built with consideration of fires, earthquakes and other scenarios.

"There is a 5,000-gallon water tank on site with a back-up pump," he said.

ASG Vice President Dr. Jurgen Poblotzki said the emergency response plan is in place and is updated yearly, the last occurring in February, and, "According to what I understand, it was followed, at least on our side."

Poblotzky said the emergency plan covers the procedures to be followed, including the notification list. Evacuation is not an option. School children and residents are to stay inside, closing windows and turning off air intake systems.

Koonce said a suggestion to install an outside warning alarm on the building was a good idea.

"We are committed to safety. Your comments are well taken and we will address them. We have invested millions in this facility. I am listening."

Fire board member Richard Forant said he would weigh all safety considerations before making a decision.

"The fire district was not aware of the contents of operation at the time your (ASG) permits were given. You have to understand your company is not a standard company. I will not make a decision until all evidence is brought forth."


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