Nearly four months after it went up in flames, Specialized Fibers on South Avenue in Corning, is under investigation by the Tehama County Department of Environmental Health for illegally possessing and storing hazardous materials and refusing to clean up the mess left over from July’s fire.
In addition, the recycling materials company is also under investigation by CalFire in connection to the inferno that burned for at least two days and closed a portion of South Avenue to more than a week.
Mark Frits, CalFire battalion chief, said his department is investigating the origin and cause of the blaze, as is the Tehama County District Attorney’s Office.
“Right now, I can’t say what the cause of the fire is, however, we are working with the D.A.’s office and charges may be filed in the future,” he added.
Tim Potanovic, Tehama County Department of Environmental Health director, said the Specialized Fibers’ lack of concern in cleaning up the burned mess could result in an environmental threat to Burch Creek, which lies close to the property.
“We do know there is a massive amount of materials we do not want to leave the property during the upcoming rainy season,” he said. “However, we know for a fact, the owner of Specialized Fibers is not going to participate in any type of remediation, so we are looking at our options to prevent the hazardous materials from leaving the property.”
Potanovic said Specialized Fibers had a Tehama County use permit to act as a recycling facility only, and did not have a permit to store any type of hazardous materials.
“So, when we went on site and started looking through the remains from the fire we became quite suspicious that there were some hazardous materials stored on the property, materials that could have been contributory to the fire,” he said.
Potanovic said during his department’s investigation at the property they located above-ground storage tanks that contained regulated materials such as petroleum and solvents.
“And, a lot of stuff we just didn’t know what it could be because it went through the extremely hot fire,” he added.
As a result, Potanovic’s department obtained a search warrant for the site.
“On Oct. 11, the Tehama County Department of Environmental Health, California Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Tehama County District Attorney’s investigators conducted a search and sampled for various types of hazardous substances, all of which are still being analyzed by the crime lab,” he said. “In all, 57 samples were taken from the property.”
According to the Specialized Fibers website, the company is operated by Omega Waste Management in Corning of which Robert O’Connor is the president. Attempts to reach O’Connor at Omega Waste Management asking for a comment were not returned.
According to Potanovic, his department has been dealing with “Specialized Fibers, Bucky Lee, Inc.”
“We haven’t been able to exactly figure out who we are dealing with, whether or not Bucky Lee, Inc., is a subsidiary or holding company or what,” he said. “But, that is what the record reflects.”
Potanovic estimates the cost to contain the hazardous materials to the property is about $300,000, while the cost to completely clean up and rid the site of all hazardous materials is $2.5 million.
“One of our main concerns at this time is to keep the hazardous materials out of Burch Creek, which is a tributary to the Sacramento River,” he said. “And to keep the site contained and safe for the people of this area.”
It appears the property and recycling business is now for sale as there is a Preferred Agents real estate sign in front of the South Avenue site which includes 7.5 acres and a 13 acre almond orchard.
However, according to Potanovic, there is an Internal Revenue Service lien against the property, and he is not sure how that will pan out for the company and property to be sold, or for his department to try and receive financial compensation if the county has to fund the containment of the hazardous waste.