Negotiations under way in fatal explosion
MINDEN — The owner of a Minden aerosol can recycling plant is hoping to negotiate a settlement with state health and safety officials over an explosion which killed one employee and injured four others, his attorney said Wednesday.
Attorney Noel Manoukian said his client, Walter Gonzalez, has made a settlement offer to the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement section. Gonzalez’ company, Depressurized Technologies, Inc., was fined $144,000 by the agency for numerous alleged violations of federal and state laws after the Sept. 17, 2001, explosion at the plant near the Minden-Tahoe Airport.
“I can’t really tell you what the offer is; the negotiations are to be confidential,” Manoukian said. “Naturally, we are hoping we can get this resolved.”
The state safety agency has scheduled a hearing April 10 in Reno before a five-member panel to hear testimony on nine citations. Under discussion, Manoukian said, is reducing the citations from “willful” acts to “serious” which would lower the fine to $63,000.
East Fork Justice of the Peace Jim EnEarl set an April 17 date for a hearing on charges against Gonzalez brought by Douglas County and the Nevada Attorney General.
Gonzalez is charged with two felonies and seven misdemeanors related to the explosion and fire. The blast took firefighters seven hours to extinguish and blew the roof off the building.
Jaime Gonzales Sanchez died of his injuries on Sept. 26. His brother, Raul Gonzales Sanchez, and Susano Lopez, Cecilio San Juan and Elias San Juan were severely injured.
If convicted, Gonzalez could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The Nevada Attorney General’s Office has filed charges against Gonzalez for allegedly not having worker’s compensation insurance for the victims. Treatment for the men’s injuries will likely exceed $1 million, officials have estimated.
Gonzalez, 46, is free on $10,000 bond. He and his wife, Doris, have a home in Carson City and a home in Morgan Hill, Calif., Manoukian said.
“They are very saddened by the adverse press and the inaccurate and false statements made by former employees about job conditions,” Manoukian said. “There are a lot of mitigating circumstances to this unfortunate incident.”
Manoukian said employees’ allegations that they were improperly trained and ill-equipped are untrue. The Gonzalezes claim the explosion occurred because employees took shortcuts and ignored safety regulations in removing the gas from aerosol cans for recycling.
“Our position is that it was a safe workplace and after cleaning the hood late the afternoon Sept. 17, one of the employees — we believe it was Raul Gonzales Sanchez — made the decision after cleaning the hood or safety device to not put it back on, and that was the safety device intentionally disregarded by employees themselves,” Manoukian said.
“It was employee misconduct that created the atmosphere for the explosion and resulting fire,” Manoukian said. “Raul failed to take steps that would have protected them.”
He said Doris Gonzalez was manager of plant and her husband spent time there, traveling between Minden and his job as head of environmental safety at a General Electric plant in Morgan Hill.
He said the Gonzalezes hope to reopen the plant, which has been closed since the explosion. They owned a similar facility in California, and Manoukian there were no safety concerns in seven or eight years of operation.
“They were here four to six months and all of a sudden they have this devastating accident which wouldn’t have happened except for Raul’s determination not to put the safety hood back on. It would have taken five seconds,” Manoukian said.
He said the workers had signed acknowledgments that they understood the safety requirements of the job.
“The Gonzalezes are very good teachers and instructors,” Manoukian said.”Those who mouthed off the most at so-called press conferences are the ones who signed statements acknowledging they understood. They were given English lessons on the job. They didn’t have to stay after work or come in early. Doris and Walter been in America for 13 years. They did a lot for these people during course of their employment as well as after.
“Prior to the day of the fateful explosion and fire, Walter called a meeting of all employees and the only one who wasn’t there was Jamie. Walter emphasized the use of the hood and stressed the tremendous importance of cleaning and putting it back on.”
Manoukian said there were possible ignition sources including turning a light switch off or on, or a motor operating a distance away.
“We understand in the absence of the owner and supervisor, they were caught lighting up cigarettes a few times. There were ‘no smoking’ signs in English and Spanish.”
Manoukian said his client was also hoping to negotiate an agreement with state and county officials.
Terry Taylor, an investigator and fire captain with the East Fork Fire and Paramedics District, said in an affidavit filed after the accident that inspectors noted numerous violations of the plan, including training of employees, accumulation of hazardous waste without a permit and failure to have an emergency contingency plan for local officials.
According to the report, gases had collected to the point where “employees were literally saturated in explosive gas.”