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Neighbors worry about French Camp fertilizer

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POSTED April 20, 2013 2:21 a.m.

FRENCH CAMP – Helen Carter watched the news on Wednesday night and cringed.

A building with flames reaching high into the Texas sky suddenly and violently exploded – blowing the windows out of homes and businesses within a five block radius.

While she undoubtedly felt empathy for those killed in the blast, Carter also became immediately concerned about a complex located less than a mile from her rural French Camp home that stores the same chemicals that were said to have ignited in the fire in West, Texas – the J.R. Simplot Company warehouse on Priest Road.

According to Carter, she and other residents have long been concerned about the impacts that the warehouse location will have on local groundwater wells, and those concerns only intensified when she saw the raw power raw fertilizer can unleash.

“A few years ago they talked about adding more tanks, and that made us all concerned about the water – we took it to the Board of Supervisors but they said that it was fine,” she said. “There’s a fear of water contamination and now fire after what I’ve seen in Texas. I’m sure nothing will ever happen, but a lot of people don’t even know this is here and I think they should be aware.”

With its main production facility in Lathrop, Simplot uses the French Camp facility as a warehousing operation – sending shipments to agri-business customers through the rural complex rather than holding fertilizer for any extended period of time.

The company, however, has an impeccable safety record in the community and maintains a positive working relationship with local fire personnel that would have to respond to any incident at the facility.

According to French Camp McKinley Fire District Chief Fred Manding, the company’s own safety inspectors are transparent when it comes to sharing information and any changes that are made to the safety operating procedure are relayed through the district.

“These guys take safety to the extreme,” Manding said. “They’re always on top of anything, and if anything changes they’re always in contact with us.”

Like other districts, French Camp McKinley would likely be forced to rely on the assistance of outside help if anything ever were to arise at the complex – something Manding said didn’t always happen in the world of emergency services management.

He recalled an incident at the Lathrop Simplot facility in the early 1980s in which the then Lathrop Rural Fire District set-up on one site of the accident and the Manteca Fire Department literally set-up their command on the other.

Today, he said, the San Joaquin County Sherriff’s Department, which is just down the street, would likely take a big role in the organization while automatic aid from nearby districts – a current agreement is in place with the Montezuma Fire District and a new one was recently inked with Stockton – would roll in.

“We’ve come a long ways since I first started,” Manding said. “We have to rely on each other a lot more. The most important thing is that there really aren’t boundaries anymore. People don’t care what it says on the side of the engine, they just want the help – now.”

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