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Previous story PCB Level Report Arrives for Newberg after substation fire and explosion Next story

Story by Aubra Salt - The Oregon Herald
Published on Saturday March 5, 2011 - 7:23 AM
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Newberg residents have finally received the EPA report on PCB contamination caused by a Newberg PG&E substation fire and subsequent explosion on Howard Street around 6:30 AM Saturday, February 19, 2011. The report indicates only very low-levels of PCB contamination were present after the explosion, and that the oil from the blown circuit breaker was much more of an environmental concern.

That Saturday afternoon, The Oregon Herald published a report on what happened. The debris from the fire and explosion rocked nearby homes for several blocks jarring most out of a deep sleep. The substation circuit breaker blew three gallons of boiling-hot oil far into the air, over surrounding trees, structures, brushes, Memorial Park a block away, and homes over a five-block diameter. The oil in the circuit breakers is known to contain 12 parts per million of PCBs.

Click for larger version of image.

Many fires and explosions occur at electrical substations on a regular basis, as seen in this similar video fire and explosion compared to the Newberg incident. It's not always the fire or explosion that causes the most damage. It's the oil. Howard Street was so covered in oil from the explosion that cleanup workers had to spread an absorbent material over the street to soak up the oily mess. This photo shows the street after the absorbent material had been swept away and removed.

Many cars , porches, sidewalks, and Memorial Park adjacent to the substation were splattered or drenched with oil particles. Residents were naturally concerned and worried about their homes, neighborhood, and Memorial Park where their children play and walk their dogs.

Onsite EPA scientist Dan Heister gathered soil samples from the area the day of the explosion. Nearly two weeks later, EPA solicited reports indicate the surrounding area was contaminated with only very low levels of PCBs from the blown circuit breaker.

Heister talked to The Oregon Herald on the phone, with the report that the PCB contamination level was at a very low level, less than 1/1000th of the original PCB levels in the blown circuit breaker. Read PDF report.

The EPA tested levels were at or around 2 parts per billion (2ppb). The EPA considers levels below 50 ppm (parts per million) normally acceptable to humans. The level found around the neighborhood by Heister's field samples are thousands of times lower than 50 ppm.

PG&E could turn a negative occurrence into a positive. Apparently, the PG&E landscaper was dissatisfied with the diseased trees and bushes surrounding the substation on Howard Street. Several of the trees were dying but hid much of the lower view of the tall metal security fence with a barbed wire lines at the top to help keep out and protect the public from electrocution. There's talk now of PG&E planning to dramatically improve the landscaping around the substation with a new, improved landscaping plan.

Most of the homeowners say they feel some apathy but most say they're more or less disappointed in the resultant view in their neighborhood. Others feel it's just something we all have to live with for progress. "Guess it's better than using candles", said one resident. "The crew did a hell of a job cleaning up the mess."

"Looks like we have no choice", said another local Lauri Greirson, who lives less than a block from what now she calls, "... a barren and bleak view.". She has two kids still at home and isn't convinced the park is safe for her kids, even after she learned of the EPA report indicating PCB levels were very small.

"Guess I'll just have to wait and see if they (PG&E) will clean up their mess - get something better, you know. Better than what we had. Which wasn't too much."

Greirson starred for a long moment, looking at the stark substation structure now looming like a collection of giant metal transformers: bleak without its bushy skirts.

"Just about anything will be better than this."