Criminal charges in Minden explosion | NevadaAppeal.com
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Criminal charges in Minden explosion

Jim Scripps, Appeal Staff Writer

The owner of a Minden aerosol can recycling plant, where an explosion killed and injured employees last year, faces criminal charges for alleged on-the-job neglect.

On Thursday, the Douglas County District Attorney’s office filed two felonies and seven misdemeanors against Walter Gonzalez, owner of De-Pressurized Technologies International Inc.

The charges are related to a Sept. 17 blast and subsequent fire that killed Jaime Gonzales Sanchez and burned Raul Gonzales Sanchez, Susano Lopez, Cecilio San Juan and Elias San Juan.

Criminal charges, filed by Deputy District Attorney Mike McCormick, include:

— Two class C felony counts of “neglect of duty in willful or wanton disregard of safety of persons or property.”

— Misdemeanor counts for failing to provide approved ventilation; systems for dilution of flammable gases; an exhaust system; systems to prevent accumulation of static electricity; a hazardous materials management plan; explosion-proof wiring, and a workplace free from hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

If convicted, Gonzales could be sentenced to as many as 10 years in prison.

Noel Manoukian, Gonzales’ Gardnerville attorney, said the charges misrepresent how the plant was run, and that employees did not take proper safety precautions during a process that releases volatile gases from aerosol containers.

“The (exhaust) hood was removed, then Raul said ‘Let’s try it without the hood,'” Manoukian said.

“It was a safe process. If the employees had complied with procedures, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Terry Taylor, an investigator and fire captain with the East Fork Fire and Paramedics District, paints a different picture.

In an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, he asserts “inspectors noted that there were violations including the training of employees, accumulation of hazardous waste without a permit, failure to comply with federal regulations and failure to have an emergency contingency plan for local officials.

“Affiant’s investigation revealed that the recycling machine was not being used on the night of Sept. 17, 2001. Instead, the employees were confined to a metal cargo container box within the building with a ventilation system that consisted of a wooden hood and electric fan. Gonzales stated that he designed the system to remove the flammable gases that were released from the punctured cans.”

According to the report, gases had collected to the point where “employees were literally saturated in explosive gas.

“Possible ignition sources for the explosion are the electric motor powered forklift, ventilation fan electric motor, or static electricity,” the report states. “The burn injuries, which are from the feet up, are consistent with a fuel vapor explosion.”

In the wake of the blast, the company was fined $144,000 by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement Section. The enforcement department cited the company for numerous violations of federal and state laws designed to protect workers.

The workers moved to Northern Nevada when the plant opened in April of last year and were sending much of their earnings back to their families in Mexico.

According to Manoukian, Gonzales will likely turn himself in to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department Thursday to face the charges. He is currently residing in Morgan Hill, Calif., where he operates another aerosol can recycling plant.

Bail and court dates have not been set.