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Chemical drum turns up AWOL: Rocket-fuel additive vanished off truck in Rancho Cordova -- or did it? CHP wonders.
By Matthew Barrows and Sam Stanton Bee Staff Writers (Published Oct. 9, 2001)
State and federal investigators want to know what happened to a 35-gallon drum of combustible powder that was discovered missing in Rancho Cordova the day before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. On Sept. 7, according to state officials, a truck hauling 123 drums of flammable chemicals left the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake in Kern County for a disposal site in Indiana.
When it reached a transfer station in Rancho Cordova on Sept. 10, however, a drum of ammonium perchlorate -- a substance used to enhance rocket fuel -- could not be accounted for.
After a preliminary investigation, state officials say they're fairly confident someone merely miscounted the number of barrels during the loading process -- a theory disputed by officials at the Naval Air Weapons Station.
The initial report of missing chemicals sparked a massive search involving the FBI and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as well as sheriff's and police departments up and down the state.
And California Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick said Monday the episode left him uneasy about the way dangerous chemicals are hauled in the state and the amount of time that passes before they are reported missing.
Helmick said his agency didn't learn about the drum until 6 p.m. Sept. 19 -- nine days after it should have arrived at the Rancho Cordova transfer center. Officials said the load of chemicals was unlocked during the trip, and at one point the driver spent the night at a motel, leaving his load unattended in the parking lot.
"To suggest it was sloppy work is an understatement," Helmick said.
Ron Baker, spokesman for the California Environmental Protection Agency, said some explosive materials must be reported immediately if they turn up missing. But because ammonium perchlorate is less volatile than others, a lost drum does not need to be reported for 15 days.
"The transfer station operator was well within the regulatory time limit," Baker said.
Baker said Cal-EPA officials also think a clerical error is at the root of the issue.
While ammonium perchlorate is combustible, he said, there are a number of more explosive chemicals -- such as gasoline -- that are easier to obtain. There also were more powerful chemicals than ammonium perchlorate on the truck, Baker said.
"You would have to have some in-depth knowledge of science to use that chemical for something other than the purpose the chemical was designed" for, he said.
But officials in China Lake said Monday the error didn't come on their end.
Naval Air Weapons Station spokesman Steve Boster said three people sign off on the size of the load before it leaves the base.
"We've done a pretty thorough search down here and we're reasonably certain our count was correct," Boster said.
Baker said the unlocked truck made two stops -- in Compton and in Richmond -- before arriving at the Rancho Cordova transfer station.
The mystery comes as state and federal investigators are reviewing thousands of companies that haul hazardous materials in the fear that terrorists may try another attack using biological, chemical or other toxic materials.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, authorities rounded up 18 men from coast to coast who had obtained fraudulent licenses to haul dangerous materials. Justice Department officials have said the men have no known links to the attacks in New York and Virginia.
Helmick said officers currently are canvassing the state's hazardous materials carriers, poring over records and interviewing drivers.
On-road inspections also have increased and state inspection stations are open longer than they have been in the past.
Helmick said that while the investigation into the missing drum is ongoing, the CHP is nearly convinced it was caused by a clerical error.
Accounting problems are fairly common, he said, and the loading process usually is videotaped to ensure a record of the load. That videotape, however, was not made in this case.
But Helmick said the episode illustrates just how easy it would be to steal dangerous chemicals and how difficult it would be for authorities to track them down.
"Obviously, we were very concerned, no question," he said. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 09, 2001