Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2017

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Henderson now ‘a lot smarter’ after era of toxic production


Lee Zaichick / Sun File Photo

A car lies amid the rubble May 6, 1988, after two large explosions destroyed the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada plant in Henderson on May 4, 1988. Debris rained down around the city, and the windows and doors of nearby homes were shattered by the incident.

With its carefully manicured neighborhoods and sprawling office parks, Henderson has outgrown its roots as a magnesium producer for the country’s military during World War II.

But the city’s industrial origins have left behind a toxic legacy that will require more than $1 billion to clean up.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced two major settlements to pay for cleanup of contamination at the Black Mountain Industrial Complex, Henderson’s largest industrial hub.

The owners of the former Kerr-McGee Chemical Plant will pay $1.1 billion to clean perchlorate contamination that reached Lake Mead. The chemical is a component in rocket fuel and has been linked to thyroid disorders.

In a separate settlement, Titanium Metals Corp. agreed to pay $13.75 million for improperly producing and disposing of polychlorinated biphenyls. The cancer-causing chemical has been banned in the United States since 1979.

Cleanup of contamination from the Black Mountain site has taken place since the 1980s, said JoAnn Kitrell, spokeswoman for the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. The biggest project has involved installing a series of pumps that push contaminated groundwater through treatment plants. Other efforts have involved removing contaminated soils by truck and installing barriers to prevent chemicals from seeping into the water supply.

Kitrell said the site is “less toxic than it has ever been” but still has a lot of history to overcome.

The complex got its start as the federally owned Basic Magnesium Plant in 1941, 12 years before Henderson became a city. The property eventually was sold by the government, and its facilities were converted to manufacture chemicals and metals by private companies.

Industrial manufacturing played a central role in Henderson’s economy for 30 years, Historian Michael Green said.

“In a way, the industrial complex is to Henderson what gaming is to Las Vegas,” he said.

Over the years, a range of chemicals were produced at the site, including chlorine, sodium chlorate, boron and ammonium perchlorate.

Green said a noticeable cloud used to hang over Henderson’s industrial area.

“The air in Henderson turned a new color,” he said. “It was sort of a grayish, greenish cloud.”

Waste often was disposed of in unlined ponds or transported offsite through ditches. Such practices were standard and legal at the time, Kitrell said.

“We’ve all gotten a lot smarter and a lot more careful,” she said. “There are a lot more regulations in place that are mandatory for industry.”

Henderson’s industrial era waned in the 1980s as the city grew rapidly and morphed into a more typical suburb. A 1988 explosion at the Pacific Engineering Production Company of Nevada rocket fuel factory made chemical manufacturing an unwanted neighbor in the city.

The PEPCON plant caught fire May 4, 1988, and set off a series of huge explosions. Two people were killed and more than 300 were injured. The force of the blasts shattered windows and doors around Henderson.

Three years later, a 42-ton chlorine leak at Pioneer Chlor Alkali in the Basic Management complex sickened more than 300 people and led to mass evacuations.

Most of the operations have since been shut down, but pollution from their operations linger.

Kittrell said outside of the perchlorate pollution in Lake Mead, the contamination has been contained within the boundaries of the Black Mountain site. There’s no indication the pollution has affected the health of Henderson residents, she said.

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