Elk Grove resident Annie Lohan, 35, was visiting her sister in Lincoln in August when they heard some disturbing news: a propane tank had caught fire at a nearby railyard, and was in danger of exploding. The family gathered up their things and quickly evacuated, along with thousands of other nearby residents.
Though Lincoln firefighters successfully cooled and drained the tank, preventing the disaster from escalating, the experience was especially unnerving for Lohan. That’s because her home in Elk Grove’s Hampton Village subdivision lies in the shadow of one of the largest propane storage facilities in the state.
“We drive past it and go, ‘Oh my god, if anything ever happened there, our house would get wiped out,’ " said Lohan.
Run by New Jersey-based Suburban Propane, the plant's tanks hold about 22 million gallons of fuel and have never had a major incident, according to fire officials in charge of inspecting them. But the city has been criticized for allowing development—including a regional mall—so close to the tanks, and the local emergency manager and fire chief say they are awaiting a report on the Lincoln fire to see if it contains any lessons about how to protect residents.
“We paid close attention [to the Lincoln fire] because this was of regional concern,” said Cosumnes Fire Chief Tracey Hansen.
A history of safety concerns
Suburban built the storage facility on East Stockton Blvd 40 years ago, when the area was zoned for industrial use and well away from population centers.
Concerns about the plant’s safety stretch back to 1999, when two anti-government militia members were arrested for planning to blow up the tanks. Had the El Dorado County men succeeded, one expert testified at their trial according to the Sacramento Business Journal, a “gigantic fireball” would have been unleashed by the bombings, causing injuries more than a mile away.
Suburban beefed up security, and the city added an additional evacuation route for the adjoining neighborhood. Nevertheless Mark Meaker, Elk Grove's fire chief at the time, wrote in a 2000 letter to city staff that the threat of terrorism or accidents made it "categorically inappropriate to allow any high-density and/or residential development within one-half mile of Suburban Propane." Even a development within a mile—like then under consideration and ultimately approved by city leaders—was "inadvisable," Meaker wrote.
Suburban has also repeatedly opposed development near the plant.
"Hampton Village's close proximity to our plant has created a situation where terrorists can hold us hostage," company representative John Fletcher said at a city council hearing held in 2000 to discuss further residential construction in the area. "We think the plant is as safe as it can be, but we cannot guarantee any problems that could evolve from terrorist-type activities."
Peter Tashemi, a spokesperson for the company reached by Elk Grove Patch last week, declined to comment on those concerns, but had this to say about the company's safety precautions:
"We do have a full safety plan in place. We’ve worked with all the authorities but for reasons of security we are not at liberty to discuss those plans."
Cosumnes Fire Marshal George Apple says today the Suburban plant “goes above and beyond” the safety measures required by California fire code.
A high-tech sprinkler system is designed to detect and immediately cool any tank where a flame erupts, preventing a fire like the one in Lincoln from occurring. Large berms have been built around the plant’s perimeter to contain liquid in case of a leak.
Firefighters periodically conduct drills at the plant, and Apple said he’s overseen eight years of annual inspections there and failed to identify a single safety problem.
But asked if the department’s original concerns have been allayed, Apple said, “Our stance hasn’t changed at all. It’s an industrial use and we try to keep high-density residential development away from industrial areas.”
Small risk of explosion
Among the accidents that could occur if Suburban’s safety systems fail is what fire experts call a ‘BLEVE.’ That’s short for ‘Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion,’ in which fuel inside a pressurized tank reaches a high enough temperature that it weakens the tank’s steel shell, causing it to blow up.
A BLEVE in the 1970s in Kingman, Ariz. killed 12 people and injured more than 100, causing a crater 10 feet deep.
Disaster preparedness experts, however, say such incidents are rare.
"It's pretty unlikely a fire would cause an explosion," said Denise Beach, a senior engineer with the National Fire Protection Association. "The only way an explosion would occur is if a fire impinges directly on a [propane] tank and there is no effort taken to keep the tank cool."
Beach said the NFPA, which tracks residential and industrial fires, didn't have any statistics on the number of blazes at propane tank farms.
"There haven't been enough incidents that tracking those statistics has become important," she said.
John Kane, a former Sacramento Police lieutenant who trains law enforcement agencies in disaster preparedness, said the risk of a propane fire or explosion is just one of many threats area residents contend with daily, whether they know it or not.
“In the United States we are technology-dependent, and there are hazards all around us,” he said. “Well over 2,000 hazardous materials shipments go through the city of Sacramento every 24 hours.”
Elk Grove has already put in place some measures that experts like Kane recommend. A Reverse 911 system can convey instructions to all residents near the propane plant in the event of an emergency. A mandatory evacuation order, pre-reviewed by the city attorney, sits ready to be signed by officials if it is needed.
The Reverse 911 calls will reach any residents with a telephone landline, but residents need to register with the Elk Grove Police Department to receive alerts by cell phone.
“From a city point of view, and an emergency management point of view, I feel comfortable with plans in place for evacuation and assistance,” said the city's emergency manager, Don Stangle.
Other Hampton Village residents also seem comfortable with the risk—or at least resigned.
“It used to be on people’s minds, but I don’t think about it at all now,” said Jesse Shipley, 20, whose family has lived on Hampton Oaks Drive, practically across the street from the tank farm, since 1998.
Lohan, however, said she wonders how easily she and her neighbors could evacuate in an emergency. The development’s meandering streets and multiple cul-de-sacs already slow down drivers, and the alternate escape route added by the city is kept locked most of the time. (Fire department dispatchers can open it remotely in the event of a disaster.)
“I don’t love the traffic here on a daily basis,” Lohan said. “Say there was a fire all across here, people wouldn’t be able to get out.
“It makes you wonder, why did they build here?”
Lohan won’t need to worry for long, however: She and her family plan to move away from the neighborhood next summer—to Lincoln.