Lawmakers examine explosions

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Lawmakers were told Wednesday that Minden's Depressurized Technologies International is an example of a dangerous business ignoring safety rules.

The company's plant near the Minden-Tahoe Airport exploded Sept. 17, killing one worker and seriously injuring four others.

The explosion -- according to worker safety officials, the Division of Environmental Protection and lawyers for the victims -- was caused by willful violations of health and safety rules that exposed workers to extreme dangers.

"The willfulness with which this employer placed his employees at risk is staggering," said Matt Callister, representing the victims, all Mexican immigrants, who worked at DTI.

The owner, who said he wasn't invited to the hearing, later denied his company had violated worker safety rules.

The company recycles aerosol cans by depressurizing them, removing and recycling the contents and cans. Dangerous levels of explosive fumes built up in the plant, and officials say they were ignited that day by a spark that seriously damaged the entire building.

Tom Czehowski of Nevada's Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement Section said workers were "actually taking a can, setting it on a spike and hitting the can with a rubber mallet" because the machinery supposed to do the job safely wasn't operating properly.

He said that is an extremely dangerous way to release explosive vapors from the cans. Allowing it constitutes "willful and conscious disregard for the occupational and safety laws," he said.

Czehowski said his agency issued a total of $144,000 in fines for such violations.

"Willful citations have a higher burden of proof," he said. "This employer helped us with that."

He said proof of willfulness lies in the fact owner Walter Gonzalez did things very differently in his plant at Morgan Hill, Calif., where that state's officials say there have been no safety violations.

"One employee indicated they thought they were working with soap when, in fact, they were working with highly flammable vapors," he said.

Even Manufacturers Association lobbyist Ray Bacon took a shot at Gonzalez, urging lawmakers not to impose onerous requirements on all industries because of a few problem companies. He referred to Gonzalez as "almost an industrial terrorist."

Gonzalez, contacted in California, said he couldn't comment on some of those allegations until he sees the materials presented to the Legislative Committee to Study Industrial Explosions.

"Frankly, we weren't invited. We didn't get any correspondence," he said.

Gonzalez said his company has never had a workers' safety violation.

"Some of the training wasn't documented, but that doesn't mean it wasn't done," he said.

He said the plant obtained the environmental permit required to operate in Nevada and published a notice of what his company would do in its Minden facility. There were no comments opposing it at the time, he said.

Czehowski said given Gonzalez's experience with his California operation, he can't claim he didn't know the Minden plant's operations were dangerous.

"This employer knew what he should have done," he said. "He just didn't do it."

Gonzalez said he is still working with the state on their differences and that he hopes to reopen the business, "if they'll let us." He said he is also discussing those fines with state officials.

"If we can still work, we'd like to work. The rest of the employees are concerned about them losing their jobs if we close the plant," he said. "Everyday, they have been getting training continuously."

And when he reopens, he said the new plant will be much more automated and safer.

"We're re-engineered all the equipment," he said. "It's going to be one single step with no people intervention."

Gonzalez, who has engineering experience, described the new system as "a totally automated, enclosed batch process."

"Once loaded, nobody can get their hands in there," he said.

He said he has been talking about his plans with state and East Fork fire officials.

But he said he would have to examine the comments made about him and his operation in Wednesday's meeting before he could respond to them.

The committee headed by Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, is charged with developing recommendations to strengthen monitoring of dangerous materials and the safety practices of companies which use them in Nevada.


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