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California Floods Causing Ocean Pollution Toxic Fumes Overcome 2 Men Cleaning Up Poisonous Items

Mon., Jan. 16, 1995

The state’s downpours and floods have created a toxic mess that is flowing into the Pacific Ocean, washing up on beaches and endangering salmon runs, officials say.

Toxic fumes overcame two workers Sunday as they helped clean up along the Russian River, which has been polluted by household cleaners and other hazardous materials carried away by floodwaters.

The men, both members of the California Conservation Corps, were treated at a hospital for dizziness and nausea and released.

“There are some gnarly black oil slicks in there,” Conservation Corps member Henry Belli said. “It smells like rotten eggs.”

Workers donned protective clothing and gas masks to remove poisons such as antifreeze, pesticides and bleach.

The river is carrying some of the chemicals into the Pacific, about 15 miles away. Cleanup crews also found propane tanks, paint cans and chemicals within a mile of washing into the Pacific.

Some containers had broken open, creating health hazards, said Tom Daly, fire protection district engineer in Guerneville, about 60 miles north of San Francisco.

“As things get uncovered, then we’re going to find more and more different hazards,” Daly said. “Any type of toxic material, be it motor oil, gasoline, fuels, cleaning substances, all those things are considered hazards if they start to mix together.”

The cleanup will take weeks, he said.

The mess was left by storms that have battered California for almost two weeks. Floods and mudslides have killed at least 11 people and caused an estimated $300 million in damage.

Skies were mostly sunny Sunday, allowing floodwaters to recede and some businesses to reopen. Forecasters said there is a 20 percent chance of showers today and that Tuesday would be mostly sunny.

The worst flooding was about 15 miles from the mouth of the Russian River, where salmon are running. That could endanger fish as well as people using nearby beaches, said Marty Isom of Sonoma County’s health department.

At a Safeway store that reopened Saturday in Guerneville, people lined up with food vouchers, hoping to get groceries. Red Cross volunteers handed out cleanup packages with mops, sponges and disinfectants.

Connie Hedrick, owner of Guerneville Liquors, and several friends were disinfecting shelves and walls, hoping to stop “the mold crawling up the walls.”

“There are so many people and so many businesses that will go under financially,” Hedrick said. “It’s a disaster. But everybody’s helping everybody and keeping their spirits up. I’m going to cry.”

Across the state, more than 10,250 families whose homes were damaged had applied for federal aid by Sunday afternoon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

In addition, state and federal disaster teams were in Sonoma County on Sunday, helping people without telephone service to sign up for aid. They planned to send additional teams to other hard-hit areas in northern Sacramento County and Southern California within the next few days, FEMA spokesman Russ Edmonston said.

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