Lack of oversight

Jack Nickerson Jr. was mopping up several inches of sludge inside a gasoline-storage tank at the Jesse Lange Distributor site on the afternoon of Feb. 13. As he worked, fumes were building, and, by the time the tank exploded, they were well above the limit deemed acceptable by state worker-safety rules.

No one was monitoring the air inside the tank while Nickerson labored, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA), the state’s worker-safety watchdog agency. Nor was the ventilator on top of the tank set up correctly or working effectively, in violation of another regulation, says Cal-OSHA. Something ignited the explosive environment, and that something was probably one of several pieces of equipment that were all in violation of worker-safety rules, the agency says.

Cal-OSHA has issued 30 citations of violation in connection with the explosion that killed Nickerson and rocked south Chico. Pieces of metal from inside the exploding tank on the Midway’s east side flew into the air and landed on the opposite side of the street. The force hurled Durham truck driver Randy Barclay some 20 feet into a concrete wall. Like Nickerson, Barclay caught fire. Unlike Nickerson, Barclay survived, though with disabling injuries, his lower legs burned to bone.

But in the anti-regulatory Butte County environment, workers like Nickerson and Barclay are often treated as expendable.

Butte County lacks a Uniform Fire Code—the set of regulations used elsewhere in California that would authorize the county fire department to make cursory checks on tank-cleaning projects and require written health-and-safety plans from contractors. Even in the wake of the February tragedy, the Butte County Board of Supervisors hasn’t moved toward adopting the Uniform Fire Code, and Butte remains the state’s largest and most urbanized county that has failed to implement the regulations.

Fire officials last month forwarded a proposal to the county attorney for adoption of a couple of unrelated Uniform Fire Code sections that it says the department needs to fight structure fires in unincorporated Butte County.

In the industrial Midway neighborhood, Jesse Lange Distributor was working to bring its 120,000-gallon storage-tank system into compliance with water-quality laws. Jesse Lange’s contractor, Northern Lights Mechanical, had successfully emptied two diesel-storage tanks prior to Feb. 13. The tank that blew up had stored the more-flammable gasoline.

Most of the Cal-OSHA citations were issued for 30 alleged violations by Northern Lights, a Washington-state company. Cal-OSHA also issued citations for lesser offenses to Jesse Lange Distributor and Barclay’s employer, Chico Drain Oil.

A Northern Lights attorney couldn’t be reached for comment. But Northern Lights has appealed the citations, which could force it to pay almost $245,000 in fines.

One of the most serious citations issued Northern Lights, a company that has cleaned tanks throughout the Western United States, involves a $70,000 fine for failing to outfit Nickerson with a safety belt and line. That fine is for a violation deemed “willful serious.”

Chico Drain, a subcontractor, has also appealed several citations that suggest the company failed to train its employees for hazardous work that they hadn’t performed before, that it provided unbonded equipment and didn’t require “fire-retardant body protection.”

Jesse Lange, cited for not warning workers that gaskets contained asbestos fibers, a matter not related to the explosion, paid a $150 fine.

Nickerson, meanwhile, had a substantial amount of methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death, according to a Butte County Coroner’s report.

The Regional Water Quality Control Board has also told Western Petroleum Marketers, a business south of Jesse Lange on the Midway, that it must remove out-of-compliance aboveground storage tanks. Once again, the Butte County Fire Department will have jurisdiction but no real authority over the project.