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Story by Aubra Salt - The Oregon Herald
Published on Saturday February 19, 2011 - 10:39 AM
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NEWBERG — Circuit breaker oil containing PCB contaminates was blown over ten square blocks near downtown Newberg this morning. Residents say they are alarmed and angry nothing more is being done. The oil-based circuit breaker apparently blew after an explosion with dense black smoke and fire erupted at the PG&E 115,000 volt distribution site next to Friends Church.

Portland General Electric crews restored power about 10:15 am to nearly 10,000 customers. The massive explosion and fire occurred around 6:30 AM in the 300 block of Howard St. According to PG&E crews, was probably caused by the sudden demand of power from another location outside Newberg. The local breaker grew extremely hot, surpassing its thermal ignition point. It then popped, cracked, and suddenly blew to pieces with a tremendous explosion heard by thousands of early morning residents.

Memorial Park and surrounding streets, lawns, cars, porches, three blocks distant, have been spewed with circuit breaker oil and PCB contaminates. Because of PCB toxicity and classification as a pollutant, PCB production was banned by the United States in 1979. However, older circuit breakers still contain the PCB's.

An Oregon Herald reporter was at the Newberg substation early this morning and walked halfway down the oil filled Howard St before PG&E crews screamed warnings to get off the contaminated street. The road, sidewalk, and grass were all heavily contaminated with pools of oil covering the entire street, sidewalk, and grass, the entire area.

Jim Bonsey who lives nearly two blocks from the substation said he heard a "percussive boom" when the circuit breaker blew and thick black smoke and fire erupted. His car was speckled with oil and he was wondering who would be responsible for clean up. And he is worried about PCB poison.

Other residents found their cars mostly covered with spots of oil. Others called PG&E with complaints with the oil but couldn't get much of a response. At the time they had no idea the spots contained oil and PCBs.

Older electrical circuit breakers and capacitors containing oil with PCBs are still allowed to be used for the life of the equipment. PG&E Information Officer, Kregg Arntson told The Oregon Herald that the circuit breakers at the substation contain PCB's. He was not certain of PCB levels but EPA Onsite Coordinator Dan Heister told The Oregon Herald PCB breakers levels are 12 parts per million and expects residual levels in the area to fall below 5 ppm, acceptable to humans and the EPA, according to Heister. He will release the result of tests conducted in the area and the parts per million found within a few days.

PG&E used sand and other material to soak up the oil in the immediate area and haul it away. However, there seems to be no plan to investigate and remove splattered oil with PCB's further from the site.

The Oregon Herald strongly suggests everyone to avoid the area of the substation. Cars, sidewalks, porches, and all surfaces may also need to be cleaned, at least by homeowners. Until the EPA and DEQ can assure the public it's safe, everyone should avoid visiting Memorial Park next to the substation.