Playing with (toxic) fire

Environmentalists say state regulators are woefully unprepared for the possibility of fire at California’s most heavily contaminated toxic sites.

The environmental organization Committee to Bridge the Gap last week sent a letter to Gov. Gray Davis, urging the implementation of new standards to protect human health in the event that wildfires break out at the thousands of clean-up sites throughout the state.

“During a fire, radioactive and chemical poisons in the vegetation and soil are released into the air, where they can threaten human health,” said Committee to Bridge the Gap spokesperson Bill Magavern.

Local sites such as the Union Pacific rail yards and McClellan Air Force Base could present problems for the fire department if a fire were to break out. While state law requires that fire districts be notified of hazardous materials stored in buildings, there is no notification requirement for contamination of soil or vegetation.

The possibility of a fire breaking out at McClellan Air Force Base is especially worrisome amid revelations that part of the site contains discarded plutonium that nobody knew was there.

“There’s probably a witches brew of chemicals there. Nobody knows for sure what we will find,” said Magavern.

The state Department of Toxic Substances is now developing regulations to govern how much toxic material can be left at a site after cleanup is considered completed. Magavern says the regulations should take into account the possibility of fire. The possibility of fires should lead to limits that are far lower than those currently being considered.

Officials at the Department of Toxic Substances Control have said the fire concern is highly speculative. But Magavern said fires at a toxic landfill at the Hunters Point site—as well as fires that burned portions of the Lawrence Livermore Labs and threatened the Aerojet facility in Chino Hills, which is heavily contaminated with dioxin and uranium—can’t be ignored.

“We’re not trying to be alarmist,” said Magavern. “We’re just trying to get the state prepared before next year’s fire season.”