It was a front-page story in THE BEE at the time: When electricity was disrupted to the 'PCC Structurals, Inc. Large Parts Campus', better known as the Precision Castparts Corporation plant on S.E. Johnson Creek Boulevard, in the late afternoon of May 11, workers lost the means of resolving a suddenly-important problem.
A 519-pound chunk of titanium alloy had been being 'chemically milled' in a tank of nitric acid and hydrofluoric acid - and they now needed to get it out, and into a water vat.
Worse, the power disruption knocked out the plant's air filtration system, which allowed a hazardous chemical vapor to escape into the plant - and eventually, out into the skies above the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood in the vicinity of Errol Heights.
The exact nature of the accident was not made public - until the release of an Oregon OSHA report abstract in October made clear just what happened, starting at 4:20 pm:
'A worker was dipping a titanium alloy part, when the three-phase power to the plant was losing one of the phases. The lights started to flicker, and [the] worker tried to remove the part. The crane stopped working. The air knives and ventilation system stopped working. Two electricians were sent in to try to switch the power over to the other substation feed, but the overloaded relay burned out, and they were not able to switch the power over, so the electrician left the site.'
The detailed section of the OSHA report reveals how the acid bath and titanium alloy react, creating a mix of chemicals, 'the larger portion of which appear to be nitrous oxides. Nitrogen dioxide is the toxicant of most concern.'
The report observes, 'The [chemical fume] sensors do not have a read-out outside of the Chemical Mill area, so they were not able to observe the readings inside the [affected] area. When they were later able to enter the area, the next day [May 12], they found that the sensors were 'burned out'.'
Sensing a problem with the electricity, the report goes on to state that the air scrubber's over relay tripped and was damaged. The plant has a back-up diesel generator, '… but, with the [air scrubber's] overload relay damaged, neither the crane nor the scrubbers could operate. Since the scrubbers were not working, toxic gasses were released into the work area and into the neighborhood.'
After the event, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspected the plant on May 12, and again on September 22. In a 'Citation and Notification of Penalty' issued on October 14, the agency listed on the citation two violations, both of them deemed 'Serious'.
These violations had to do with employees 'engaged in emergency response, and exposed to hazardous substances, presenting an inhalation hazard …' and that some of the responding employees were not 'HAZWOPER [Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response] trained'.
Oregon OSHA fined the company $300 for each violation, and required that the violations be abated by November 14.
In this document, an OSHA official wrote:
'This type of accident has only occurred once in fifty years. The company is looking into a change in the electrical and mechanical configuration to avoid a repeat of this situation. Sensors now have been added to the mezzanine area [above the Chemical Milling tanks].'
Oregon OSHA Public Information Officer Melanie Mesaros commented on the findings, and how this emergency could relate to the neighborhood around the plant.
'We regulate workplace safety,' Mesaros told us. 'We look at how workers are impacted, and do not have jurisdiction over what happens in the neighborhood.'
Mesaros said that Precision Castparts must provide a 'Letter of Corrective Action', whether they pay the penalty or decide to appeal the fines. 'They still have to correct these issues. We did get another complaint on October 4; it relates to safety and health issues. It is still under investigation.'
Looking back in OSHA records, Mesaros said she found:
• 2008 - Eight 'serious' violations
• 2010 - Two injuries requiring hospitalization and 25 'serious' violations.
About the May incident, Precision Castparts spokesman Dwight Weber said he hadn't yet seen the 'Citation and Notification of Penalty', and so couldn't comment specifically on it.
'We've met with OSHA several times,' Weber said in a telephone interview. 'We take the recommendations very seriously. We've implemented recommendations based on the incident.'
Oregon DEQ Enforcement database 'Enforcement Actions Initiated by Inspector and Issued to Source, 1998 to present' showed no air quality issues at the plant.
Greg Grunow, with Oregon DEQ in their Gresham office, checked the records before stating that DEQ didn't take any action regarding this case.
'After looking at the situation, it was determined that the event was an emergency situation that they could not reasonably been expected to control,' Grunow responded.
According to the United States Department of Environmental Quality, the primary effects of exposure to nitrogen dioxide, the 'toxin' released from the plant during the incident, are 'Eye, nose, and throat irritation'. Extremely high or prolonged exposure - like being inside a burning house - can lead to severe health problems, the DEQ states.
However, most nitrogen dioxide illnesses in homes come from using kerosene heaters, un-vented gas stoves and heaters, and environmental tobacco smoke.
We checked back with Steve McAdoo, Public Information and Community Liaison Officer with Clackamas Fire District #1, to review the event from his standpoint.
'We didn't pick up readings on our equipment,' McAdoo. 'We ordered 'shelter-in-place' in case of a 'worst case scenario' when we saw the orange plume. However, using the air monitoring equipment we have, and that used by Portland Fire and Rescue as well as the Oregon State HazMat teams, weren't getting a [hazardous gas] reading on the equipment.'
PCC Structural employs about 1,600 workers at their Johnson Creek Boulevard plant.