‘The system did not work well with this particular incident,” said Richmond’s mayor Tom Butt in a defeated tone over the phone as he recalled last month’s fire at Sims Metal Management in Richmond. He was referring to the Contra Costa County’s Community Warning System, which according to him and some neighbors of the metal recycler, did not work during what Butt referred to as the worst fire he has experienced.
The fire, which took place at around 5 p.m. on January 30, has resulted in two violation notices issued to the company by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and a pending status update from BAAQMD on the quality of the air. Residents were asked to shelter in place and roads were closed until the fire was extinguished.
Sims Metal Management was given a notice for a public nuisance violation and an illegal open burning violation. Both fines and penalties are under review, as the case is under investigation by the BAAQMD, a regional agency responsible for protecting air quality.
“The Air District is continuing to investigate this incident for all potential air quality violations in collaboration with Contra Costa County Health Services and other agencies,” stated Jack Broadbent, an executive officer of the agency, in a press release.
According to its website, the county’s warning system responds according to the level of urgency, with air sirens in special safety zones, an emergency alert system on television and on the KCBS 740 AM radio station, via phone calls and on Facebook and Twitter @CoCoCWS. A representative from the Contra Costa County Office of the Sherriff did not return requests for information about how well the warning system had worked during the fire.
Residents in the area neighboring the metal recycler expressed their concerns about the closeness to the fire, the air quality, and the lack of information about the incident released by the local government.
“I want to be safe,” said Angelia King, who has been living a few blocks away of the Sims Metal Management for the last six months, saying she had not received any alarm from the county.
According to King and her neighbor, Lynda Moore, there is an emergency alarm test from the County Warning System every Wednesday at 11 a.m. They say they expect this alarm to go off in the event of a nearby fire.
But when the Sims fire started, King was sleeping, and did not become aware of the fire until her roommate informed her of the incident, two hours later. She said she could see a grey cloud of smoke in the dark sky.
“It gave me a cough,” said Moore, who suffers from bronchitis and noticed the air did not clear up until midday the day after the fire.
According to a statement released by the Contra Costa Health Services, an air sample conducted by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District at the beginning of the month revealed a high presence of benzene, a carcinogen that can cause cancer after long-term exposure. The effect of short-term exposure to benzene is unknown.
A representative from Contra Costa Health Services did not respond to requests for additional comments.
“I’m ready to give up on” the Contra Costa County’s Community Warning System, said Butt, who says he has recommended that the city break away from the county to create its own system. He said that the system has always performed with errors, since it was put in operation during the 1990’s, and that these have never been resolved. “At least if we screw up, we only have ourselves to blame,” he added.
Butt said “at some point” the city’s planning director will be holding a hearing to discuss if Sims Metal Management was in compliance with the permits assigned by the city, and if any new conditions on the permits should be imposed.
Representatives from Sims Metal Management did not return calls from Richmond Confidential for comment. But Sims spokeswoman Jill Rodby told KQED “We will look at any improvements to reduce the risk of fires at this facility, including a focus on stockpile size, improving fire breaks, and the use of technology to monitor stockpiles.”