Los Angeles

Explosive Recycling Plant Fire Spurs Calls for Change

In the early morning hours of June 14, a fire engulfed a scrap metal recycling yard in a community southeast of downtown Los Angeles and threatened homes.

Police and deputies in Maywood went door to door, ordering everyone out. Firefighters converged. The flames grew. Explosions lit up the predawn darkness.

Water intended to douse the flames had the opposite effect. The water caused a chemical reaction with a culprit inside the warehouse — magnesium. The chemical reactions caused explosions that knocked down power lines, killed power to the neighborhood and threatened the lives of residents and first responders.

Eventually, the fire commander had to call off the firefight due to safety concerns.

In the months after the so-called Fruitland Magnesium Fire, regulators have intensified the call for changes that would require owners of hazardous materials sites to report combustible metals such as magnesium as part of their chemical inventories.

Officials want accurate and comprehensive lists of chemicals and other hazards that first responders can access in real time so they know what dangers they're facing.

It renewed discussions about changing the way inspections are done and it highlighted the urgency of "the Environmental Justice Bill," which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last month. That law, SB-1000, will force California cities and counties to consider the health and safety of residents living in the shadows of industry and manufacturing when reviewing zoning and land use plans.

"Maywood is a classic example of why I authored SB-1000," said Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino. "Companies, corporations and industrial facilities should not be functioning right where people are living. They're almost all in poor neighborhoods."

Poor communities bear a disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental hazards, she said. Inappropriate land use is a leading cause of environmental inequities such as a lack of basic infrastructure to the exposure to toxins from industrial facilities, Leyva said.

She said residents in these communities often suffer higher rates of asthma, birth defects and cancer.

"We are all suffering environmental justice," said Marcos Oliva, a resident of neighboring Bell, who has helped organize Maywood residents. "If it was another healthier, wealthier community you would have a better and faster response. This is the tip of the iceberg. This is just the consequences of years of neglect."

Several high-profile environmental emergencies in Southern California — an explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, the shutdown of the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon and a massive gas leak in suburban Aliso Canyon — are pushing these issues to the forefront.

[MAYWOOD PHOTO GALLERY] Maywood Fire's Aftermath

"We've seen Exxon, Aliso, Exide and now Maywood," said Bill Jones, the chief of the LA County Fire Department's hazardous materials division. "It's an ongoing, continuing discussion. We're always looking at how can we improve things, to better protect the citizens, protect the environment and prevent these things from happening."

Fears Raised Elsewhere

Maywood is not unique. Since June, buildings containing hazardous materials have caught fire and caused similar fears in other nearby communities.

On Sept. 12, a fire engulfed a two-story commercial building in downtown Los Angeles, causing gas cylinders inside to explode and forcing firefighters to battle the flames from a distance.

On Sept. 3, a shelter-in-place order was issued for neighborhoods surrounding a metal plating plant that blew up in Huntington Park. Hazmat teams worked to contain a vat of toxic hydrofluoric acid that leaked in the fire.

The Fruitland Magnesium fire occurred at a facility where two businesses were operating without permits. One was being charged criminally for a case stemming back to 2013. And the second owner of a metal stripping business had been operating without a permit before the June 14 fire.

Neither business owner was charged in the June 14 fire, the preliminary cause of which was deemed undetermined.

Inspection Challenges

Jones said the situation highlights the challenges faced by 40 LA County inspectors, responsible for monitoring thousands of businesses.

"We have 23,000 businesses in LA County that we regulate," he said. "That's a huge workload. I think that for certain business operations that are always compliant, maybe we have to look at them different from the more high-risk and the more problematic facilities."

"That's something that we've been talking about at a statewide level. There's probably some improvements we could consider in the future, and we are talking about that."

The other concern during the Maywood firefight was the lack of information immediately available about its dangerous contents.

Magnesium is not required to be reported in the form that it was in — a chunk of metal — because it's not hazardous in that form, Jones said.

"In certain conditions of heat, and water being applied, it can become very explosive," he said.

Maywood resident Juan Rosas, whose family was evacuated during the June 14 fire, welcomes the changes.

"It seems kinda common sense," Rosas said. "These are all things that I'm shocked to hear that are not in place. But this is good news. I'm glad they finally thought about that."

NBC4's Lolita Lopez contributed to this report.

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