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Through these stories of danger, I hope to shed light on the incredible resilience and resourcefulness required to overcome life's most perilous situations
SEATTLE, WA, May 05, 2023 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Richard Runyon has led a remarkable life and enjoyed a successful career that spans many years and covers a multitude of accomplishments. From his early childhood experiences to his academic pursuits and professional achievements, Runyon's journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. With a diverse educational background in criminal justice and biology, he has conducted groundbreaking research and served as an esteemed educator. From managing hazardous materials programs to investigating international scandals, Runyon's expertise in environmental health and safety has made a lasting impact. His commitment to keeping people safe has been a driving force throughout his career, and his passion for environmental biology has propelled him to new heights of success.
Unlike most, Richard Runyon is also a captivating storyteller and adventurer, able to share his exploits in unique and exciting ways. Now, he is set to enthrall audiences once again with the highly anticipated release of the third installment of his acclaimed interview series, "A Story to Tell." In this latest interview, Richard takes readers on a gripping journey through his professional encounters with danger. Such risk is exemplified here with Richard's experiences with hazardous materials, including daring escapades involving chemical spills, mishandled radioactive substances, and oil well leaks. Additionally, he shares heart-pounding moments from his many airplane flights, including a harrowing hijacking incident and more. In his field, even industry politics (and sometimes actual politics) acted as yet another looming danger for our protagonist to navigate.
And navigate it he does! With this latest material, Richard Runyon's "A Story to Tell" interview series reaches new heights, showcasing not only his extraordinary abilities as a character in the stories themselves, but also as a seasoned storyteller! He aims to continue captivating audiences around the world with his engaging series, now at its halfway point and showing no signs of slowing down.
Following the resounding success of the first two installments, Richard Runyon's "A Story to Tell" interview series has become a phenomenon, leaving an indelible impact on its readers. The 2022 release of the inaugural article garnered widespread media coverage and acclaim, praised for its gripping subject matter and Richard's captivating narrative style. The second installment set the stage for that next chapter, while anticipation soared along with expectations. Now, here we are for round three, and the energy surrounding "A Story to Tell" is at a fever pitch. But all Richard wants to do is deliver some good stories, and maybe a few lessons along the way, to anyone paying attention.
"Through these stories of danger, I hope to shed light on the incredible resilience and resourcefulness required to overcome life's most perilous situations," shares Mr. Runyon. "It is testament to the human spirit and its unwavering determination to prevail in the face of adversity… and it makes for some pretty entertaining stories, too!"
In this latest release, Richard Runyon builds upon the foundation established by its predecessors, immersing readers in the thrilling twists and turns of his extraordinary life. Begin reading Part Three here and now:
TSR News Group: One of the key areas that I want to cover in today's discussion, Richard, is your extensive work with hazardous materials. Can you tell us how you got involved in that?
Richard Runyon: Yes. However, I want to quickly talk to you about a hazardous materials event that I found myself in before I was really ready to manage them. I was still living in the dorms, going to school, and I had a part-time job working for the owner of the dorms, doing maintenance work and odd jobs for him. He had recently hired a full-time guy to assist with the work. The dorm owner also owned a small piece of land in Los Angeles that had, I think, four oil wells on it. I don't remember exactly. And if you have ever lived in Los Angeles or traveled around, you'll probably spot some of these oil wells here and there.
Anyway, his oil wells all fed their crude oil into one storage tank on the property, and it leaked. So there was a fair amount of crude oil on the ground, but he wanted us to seal the tank. Well, we didn't know much about it, but I guess we figured it was like sealing a roof. So we obtained a cart that had a burner underneath it, and we would put this hard sealing material in the tank and heat it up to the point where we could then pour it out into a bucket. And then we'd hold the bucket over it and use that to seal the inside of these tanks, or this tank.
Now, as you can imagine, going into a holding tank that just had all the crude oil removed, it was probably not a nice environment to be in. And in fact, I'm sure OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] would've gotten pretty excited if they had seen us in this tank. We went in there at first and realized it was crazy. So we went and rented a machine to try and improve the air flow in the tank and clear it out a bit, and it helped. My partner decided he would be the one to be in the tank, and I didn't argue with him. So my job was to melt this tar and carry it over to him in buckets, which sounded easy enough. I didn't realize that there was a real need to regulate the fire underneath it, and it got so hot when I was pouring this hot tar into the bucket, it caught fire!
As I mentioned, this property was covered in crude oil, and the last thing we needed was a fire. Luckily, we had some fire extinguishers, so I was able to put it out before it caused any real damage, and then I tried to turn down the heat and was reasonably successful. Finally, we got the tar to a pourable state, and we continued with the process, but it wasn't a singular event, it kept happening. Luckily, throughout this whole process, it never got any worse. So we came out of there successful, although I'm sure my partner aged a few years! So that was really my first experience.
Then I was working for the county of Santa Barbara in a hazardous material specialist position that opened up. I had a fairly decent chemistry background, so I applied for the job and was selected. This job had traditionally just been one of an advisory capacity to folks within the agency or maybe with some of the other county agencies, and the occasional public here. But it wasn't a real active position. After I took the job, the state passed a number of new hazardous waste laws. They then passed the enforcement down to the county level. Now, these laws were really laws that the EPA had passed, so our state took them and then gave it to us to implement. So that meant I couldn't do much sitting at my desk; I had to be a little more active.
One of the first things that occurred was a tanker truck that was leaking. Now, we had in our county a licensed hazardous waste disposal site that within a year or so became the only hazardous waste site in Southern California. So you can imagine all the truck traffic we were having from all over Southern California. And so it became really important to begin to regulate these trucks. I'm proud to say that the Highway Patrol in California really did a good job in getting them in shape, and it didn't take too long, so we didn't see the same number of leakers like we did at first.
Anyway, this was a leaker that came in. He was running a mixed acid and heavy metal waste disposal. Typically, these are not a big problem for your health, other than the fact it's acidic, and you wouldn't want to drink it because of the heavy metals. Well, it was leaking, so the Highway Patrol pulled over the truck, off in a remote area, and everybody showed up. I was there as well, but so was the media. Of course, the fire department was there and the Highway Patrol was in charge. So I decided I'd just go ahead and manage it. I looked at the manifest to see what the truck was carrying, then I took some baking soda and threw it on the ground. The acid had come out and pooled on the ground, but the baking soda easily neutralized the acid. The driver of the truck took his wrench and tightened up the valve that was leaking.
TSR News Group: So you threw some baking soda on the ground?
TSR News Group: And how does that work exactly?
Richard: Well, the predominant acid in this mixture was hydrochloric, and so baking soda is really effective with hydrochloric acid. It turns it into, basically, water and salt.
TSR News Group: Amazing.
Richard Runyon: Yeah, so the small spill was essentially neutralized. One of the Highway Patrolmen who was designated as a speaker was talking to the media, and he said, "Well, the spill is no longer toxic, so we're in good shape." So I happened to mention that, well, it is still toxic, but the hazard has been taken care of because we neutralized the acid. It was really the hazard. So at that point, the media decided that they would talk to me about it, and they all came over, and we had a nice chat. The patrolman, I'm sure, was relieved. He didn't know anything about hazardous materials; he was just there talking because he was told. Anyway, at that point, the county fire department gave me a fire department pager. And so, for the next year or more, I was on call 24 hours a day. Anytime there was a spill, the Highway Patrol notified the fire department, who responded, which was essentially every single one that they knew about, whether it was Highway Patrol, EPA, or Coast Guard… it's outside of it though.
If you looked at the federal responsibility in Southern Santa Barbara County, if it was on one side of the freeway where the ocean was, that was the Coast Guard's responsibility. The other side of it was EPA's responsibility. Well, EPA knew that we were able to handle all but the biggest problems; they're not going to respond to some of these little spills. We had one response one time from the Coast Guard. They sent a junior officer who was just looking for someone to cite for the spill. So we backed off until I asked her how she was going to handle the spill and the overturned truck. She clearly was at a loss and finally recognized she was in over her head and gave the incident back to us. This response in itself was kind of embarrassing for them, so they never came back out, which was good. So the next one I went on turned out to be concentrated hydrochloric acid that was in a laboratory, and enough spilled there that it flowed out of the lab into the parking lot where it was contained with some booms.
The fire department had arrived, and the facility's chemist was on-site. And she said, "Well, just put on some sodium hydroxide." Well, the fire department decided to wait till I got there. And the chemist told me that she worked at the facility and she was recommending sodium hydroxide to neutralize the acid. But I told the fire department that it was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. One, when you put on sodium hydroxide, first, sodium hydroxide acts on hydrochloric acid as a perfect neutralizer; you get salt and water. Salt as in table salt and water. So it's pretty safe at that point. But although you had a known amount of hydrochloric acid, it was spread out all over. So you didn't know how much sodium hydroxide to use. If you put too much, now we have a caustic spill. And sodium hydroxide is about as caustic as you can get. And if you spill that on you, it will burn right through the arm and the bones. It's really nasty stuff.
TSR News Group: Did you say caustic or toxic?
Richard: Caustic, but it's both. So hydrochloric acid might have a pH of one or below, caustic is going to have 12 or above. Sodium hydroxide is a really important chemical, but you definitely do not want to get it on you. I'd rather have hydrochloric acid. Anyway, that was one reason. Another reason is the reaction when you're putting on caustics such as Sodium Hydroxide; the reaction is pretty vigorous, and it spits and spurts and jumps up and gets real excited. And that meant the firemen are going to be out there doing this when this stuff is spitting everywhere, and I didn't want that to happen. So I advised the battalion chief that that was a bad idea, and it didn't make the chemist very happy.
Now, baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, and sodium carbonate, also really effective, but it's a lot cheaper even if you have to use twice as much. And so that's what we did, and we spread it on. And if you put too much on, who cares? Because it's not hazardous at all, and it's very effective. And when the spill stops bubbling and the reaction is over, you don't need to worry about it anymore. So that worked out really well. They were able to wash it down without causing environmental problems.
TSR News Group: That's good.
Richard: They were really happy with that, and they decided that I was going to be their go-to guy from that point forward.
TSR News Group: That's great.
Richard: So it was a little while later that I got a phone call from Ross Grayson, who was in charge of hazardous materials at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Ross used to work for the county, so I knew him very well, but he called me up to give me a heads up that on the side, he did a little consulting work, and he had gotten a call from these homeowners to come take a look at what they had. He showed up and started looking around.
Not very long after he was there, he said, "You guys have way too much here to deal with. You need to call Richard Runyon with the county and have him help you." They weren't really excited about that. But he left and he called me up, gave me a heads up. The homeowners called me very shortly after that. I showed up and started to look at what they had. It was all outside in their backyard, but it was, for the most part, in these big wooden storage sheds, all scattered around.
So I started looking, came across rocket fuel. I came across 100 pounds of mercury. I found rusted cylinders of gases that were substantially more toxic than what they used in the gas chambers [during the Holocaust]. They just had some real nasty stuff. They had bottles of material that had sat so long, the liquid in it kind of evaporated out of the bottle and the remaining residue crystallized, which makes it really unstable. I told them that, yeah, we need to take care of this.
They had bought all of this material from McDonald Douglas 10 years ago, who was closing a laboratory. It was a research lab. They were closing it down, and they sold them all these chemicals for $100... these guys who probably couldn't even spell chemicals! They weren't dumb, they just didn't know what chemistry was. They still had the receipts though, and this was from 10 years ago. They had stuff stored. We had the receipt, and yet it showed all the chemicals, which was nice. They called McDonald Douglas and let them know what was going on. McDonald Douglas is a responsible company. When they sold these laboratory chemicals, hazardous waste was not an environmental or legal issue.
They realized their liability here was pretty good, so they hired a firm to do the cleanup, and they came up to oversee that, which was a good idea. So McDonald Douglas came up, and they assumed the responsibility to repack all these chemicals and take them to a disposal site…. and they were going to pay for all that themselves! So that was really good. I watched over it for a while to make sure things were going okay. The first things I did actually when I left this house, I stopped at the local fire station and told the fire captain that if they had a fire in this place, do not go in, there were nasty chemicals. I advised them to stay away from the backyard and fight the fire from a distance. So I think he looked at me like I was crazy, but he didn't object.
This was a house in the middle of a residential area, and they knew there were residents living all around them. So one day, a few days into the project, I showed up and McDonald Douglas was leaving. I asked them what was going on, and they said, "Well, he's asked us to assume all liability at his house" and on and on. I pointed out that it was crazy and said, "Well, just wait a minute. I'll see what I can do." So I went back there, these chemicals were all scattered around outside any protected containers. I asked these guys if what McDonald Douglas said was true, and they said that they were following advice from their attorney. So I said, "Reach your attorney on the phone." Which they did. I explained to him, I said, "Now, we have what I would consider to be an imminent threat to public health because this stuff is everywhere in bottles, and these are rocket fuels and stuff." And I added, "It's an immediate threat to public health, I could call in my own crew to have them clean it up, and then under state law, I could bill your clients for three times the cost of that cleanup." At that point, it was estimated between $300,000 and $400,000. I said, "You might want to talk to your clients!" They backed down, and we finally got everything cleaned up. They got everything packaged, and we had two 55-gallon drums that they couldn't dispose of because if they were too reactive, the waste disposal site wouldn't take it. So I called the bomb squad to come out, and they picked the materials up, and we all took them to a remote side at one of the landfills, and they detonated them, and that took care of that.
TSR News Group: Yeah, I bet!
Richard: That was pretty exciting actually. I was quite a ways away, and I felt that pressure wave hit me! I was really surprised.
TSR News Group: Really?!
Richard Runyon: Yeah. So that cleanup went okay this time, it cost $400,000. Then there was a spill that I did not get immediately involved in. I was in Los Angeles with my father who was dying of cancer. I was sitting in the waiting room, and the television was on, and they broke in to talk about this big hazardous waste problem in Santa Barbara County. So obviously, I'm paying attention, and they had cameras and stuff. It was a truck, again, with mixed acid, but in this case, the two acids were not compatible, and they began to react in the tank. And finally, there was enough reaction, it blew the pressure valve, and it all started to come out. The fire department was smart enough to just use their water stream to knock the cloud of acid down and direct the waste into a local creek that was empty. They told me afterwards, they were thinking about me as I had been doing training with these guys, and they realized that you don't want to put a bunch of water on the acid because all you do is increase the total volume of the hazard. So it takes huge amounts of water to neutralize it, nowhere near what they were prepared to use.
They were also smart enough to have dammed up this dry creek bed ahead of time, so they were able to stop the flow of this stuff. And so, the hazard went away when it stopped, and that's where I came in to deal with the acid and heavy metal waste. One of the things that we learned from this incident, or actually the deputy district attorney learned, was that she settled too quickly – the deputy district attorney settled the case with the owners of the tank fairly quickly, in fact, too quickly, because we weren't able to bill them for any cleanup. And the liability case against them was also settled. So I managed to basically take care of the waste. There wasn't a lot of it at that point, and it neutralized itself. And all we had was, again, a bunch of heavy metal. So we were able to pump out what was left, which wasn't a lot.
And then the job came up, digging it out from the bottom of the stream and getting rid of that waste. And that took quite a while. I remember one of the things that occurred was there was a big pile – well, they were piling this stuff up on the side of the creek. There was another pile there on private property. We knew it was clean, it was part of the dirt they removed when they dug out the stream before the spill. I kept telling him that the pile of dirt was clean, as it was dirt removed from the creek before the spill, but he didn't believe me.
He went to the board of supervisors, and a board member from that district called me up. He said, "If it's not a problem, why don't you guys go ahead and sample this stuff, and have it analyzed?" He thought we had money to pay for the analysis, but we didn't, as we always made the violator pay. So anyway, I went out and took a randomized sample of this pile, went in and got it tested, and showed that it wasn't hazardous. Now, what I didn't tell the board members was, if on the remote chance it comes back as hazardous, the only way to recover our money and clean up and dispose of this pile of now hazardous waste would be to go after the property owner as he is now the only responsible individual. We couldn't get reimbursed by the violator because they already settled. So the guy that was complaining, if it turned out it really was hazardous, he was going to get a big unpleasant surprise, but we managed to get it taken care of anyway after a long period of time.
Then somebody brought up a newspaper from Ventura County, which was the county just south of us, and the headlines stated that the Channel Islands National Park was full of hazardous waste. So it turned out that Channel Islands were actually in Santa Barbara County. But there was a nice big harbor in Ventura, and so it would be the most logical place for people to take off to go to the Channel Islands, even though it was in a different county. So now, I've got this national park full of hazardous waste, and I didn't really know much about what was going on.
So I called up the superintendent, and he was really glad to hear from me because I told him, if he's got a problem, then we'll get it cleaned up. So I said, "However, you need to know that as a superintendent and manager of this, you're going to be one of the ones that they go after if we have any trouble." And he said, "That's okay." Well, it turns out, on the federal level, it's the Corps of Engineers that manages hazardous waste, and there are literally thousands of places all over in the US, mostly from military bases that either closed the base, or closed off that area or whatever. And that's why this was an Air Force base and a Radar Center during the Cold War.
So I flew out with the superintendent and one of my guys, and we landed on this grass field, and it didn't take long before we discovered the park had a huge issue with asbestos, because asbestos lined a lot of the pipes, and they were above ground. Asbestos was coming off and blowing around. And then they had a number of underground tanks, all of which were suspected or found to be leaking. The tanks likely contained diesel fuel. And there was a possibility of some PCBs from some of the transformers. PCB is a chemical that doesn't break down when it is released, and it has been found in lots of places, including breast milk from mothers to babies. It just shows you how this stuff is spread everywhere.
And its toxicology? Well, it used to be pretty controversial, but I think eventually, everybody now agrees that it causes cancer. So we knew we had a lot of hazardous waste at the site. We can't very well open a brand new national park if it's a hazardous waste land, but the park doesn't have the funds to clean it up. And when we went to the Corps of Engineers, they said, "Hey, we've got sites all over the country that are way more hazardous than this park. That's where we're going to spend our time and money. You guys are far down on the list."
Well, from their perspective, I agreed. But from my perspective and the publicity that was already going on about this, and the fact that it was a national park, we went to the deputy district attorney who was helping us at that time, and we got him to file criminal charges against the Corps. Well, all of a sudden, we got their attention because that was a big deal. So they went to Congress and got a special bill passed to give them enough money to clean this site up. So that was pretty cool.
My buddy who had gone over there with me, I assigned him to oversee this cleanup. He flew out and he stayed there. They had to haul the drums and stuff off the island. So they had a barge that was particularly suited for hauling the drums of contaminated dirt around [diesel tanks and the transformers, PCBs, and we did confirm that] they did have PCBs. So all that got hauled to the mainland and disposed of. But we had a lot of asbestos. And for the asbestos, we made a decision to bury it on-site. And that's what we did. It's not going to degrade, it's not going to hurt groundwater as the island doesn't have any groundwater, so as long as people weren't breathing it, we were okay with that. So that's what we did, and that made everybody happier because that would have been really expensive. So we took care of that.
Eventually, we got it cleaned up and opened the National Park, and now it's an active park, and it's kind of neat. It's Channel Islands National Park. It's actually a number of islands involved, but this one was the island that was the closest to the mainland and most likely the one the people would visit. And it had unique plants on it that didn't grow anyplace else. I was fortunate enough to visit the islands as part of an International Science Group and look at the unique habitat and plants and stuff. I also was able to dive on those islands as well.
TSR News Group: Oh, you did some diving, too?
TSR News Group: That is great.
Richard Runyon: So then I'm home one evening having dinner when I get a phone call from the fire department, and there's a radiological spill down at the airport. They said don't bother coming down, it's not going anywhere. First thing in the morning, I went down there, and it turns out what happened was that a research company, whose work was mostly classified and worked for the Department of Energy, needed a number of sources of radiation. So they stored these sources in a shed outside of the main building. That particular winter, Santa Barbara got a lot of rain. Well, the roof leaked and began to fill areas of the shed with water, and their sump pump failed. Their maintenance guy figured that out, no big deal. So he went out there and put in a new sump pump, and everything was fine. Except for the fact that when the water raised up, it had come in contact with a source of cobalt 60, which is a radioactive material. It was stored in a stainless-steel container, but the stainless-steel container rusted. How, I'm not really sure, but radioactive material leaked into the water. And so when this maintenance guy came in and pumped it out, he didn't realize this water was now contaminated. He pumped it out, and the water flowed into the neighbor's asphalt parking lot, which has a drain in the middle, so it flowed across the asphalt down the drain. But the drain ran down and out of their facility and into an open dirt ditch. That ditch continued down a street, and then it went under another street and back into a dirt ditch where it ran past a water well that was being built for the community, and then into a stream. That stream then ran into the ocean.
So we know this because we could follow the radioactive trail all the way. We followed it to the stream, and then we lost it. We did check the stream discharge into the ocean, but we didn't find anything. So as far as we know, it was dispersed enough that nothing else was a problem. But we did know that we had all this radioactive material in the ditches, in the asphalt. So all these guys, a lot of them were actually Department of Energy employees who had been flown out from Nevada to try and help them. Well, of course, there was a lot of interest in this, not only from the press but also from my bosses. They really wanted this thing resolved.
So I spent a lot of time on it, but what was interesting is that we had to have some of the employees from the next-door facility who had no idea what was going on, but they had to have what's called full body scans, which means that we checked to see whether any of the cobalt 60 was inside of them, because that really would've been a problem. Turns out they were fine. But I did tell them to give me their shoes, and they were destroyed. They weren't happy about that.
TSR News Group: Yeah. I'm sure.
Richard: I'll tell you another shoe story in a minute. So we ended up digging up and disposing of a lot of the asphalt. We also needed to find out for sure where the cobalt 60 went. This firm had developed a device that was so sensitive that they could drive around and tell not only where the cobalt 60 went, but when we got over near the water well, the water well had been drilled using drilling muds which is typical, most drilling mud contains naturally occurring radioactive thorium in it. Now, the levels were not really a health concern, but it ended up in the creek along with the cobalt 60. The well water was also found free of any contamination. And frankly, the cobalt 60 at that point wasn't a health concern either, but the firm was obligated to clean it all up because they spilled it. So they ended up cleaning up the thorium as well. We had 500 barrels of contaminated material. So that was a lot.
TSR News Group: Yeah, it's a lot.
Richard: Luckily, as far as I can tell, nobody was injured, but that was quite an interesting one with radiation everywhere. Now, the shoe story; one of the problems we would have with our spills was that the media loved to come out and film it. Now, we had it taped off, so we knew where the secure area was. We particularly used that when we changed from our street clothes into the more protective gear before we go out to the spill. But the media didn't care, they just go out there with their cameras. We kept telling them it wasn't safe, but they ignored us. And so, at that point, I instructed my supervisor, I said, "Next time they go out to the secured areas, you advise them when they come out, I want you to confiscate their shoes because we need to know whether they're tracking stuff around." So that's what he did. And we never had trouble with the media again after that.
TSR News Group: [laughing] Yeah, I bet.
Richard: So I had a call from their editor about a week later. I told him that as the shoes were leather, they could not be decontaminated, and I sent them to the hazardous waste landfill. I think he thought it was a little funny.
TSR News Group: That is funny.
Richard: It is kind of funny. So then I'm at home working out and had my sweats on, and there's a knock at the door. It's one of the Battalion Chiefs, and he said, "Hey, we got a spill. You've got to show up." I said, "Okay." So I took off, got into the car, and the spill was just outside the town, so it didn't go very far. But when we arrived, I think there were three other fire trucks there at the same time, and there were cop cars from the city, from the county, and highway patrol was there. I think there were four cop cars, three fire engines. Lots of big presence. And they rolled there because somebody got the call that a truck with radioactive placards had dumped a bunch of stuff on the side of the road. So they wanted me to check it out.
I had a good understanding of the situation, so I approached and examined the spill. To my relief, it was determined that the spill was not radioactive, nor was it acidic. It posed no immediate danger. The incident involved a truck that had disposed of waste material from a commercial radiation unit. These units are used for inspecting welds on pipelines to ensure their quality. They employ a powerful radiation source that is securely fastened to a metal clamp, resembling a flexible metal tube. When not in use, the source can be rolled up and stored in a lead container for safekeeping.
And so when they use it, they just crank the snake out, it goes down the pipe to the point where they want it. They have the X-ray paper on the outside, they leave it there for however long they need to, then they crank the source back into the container. By the way, the container is called a PIG. So then they develop the paperwork, the film like in the old days. They would put silver on it, which is necessary for the x-ray, they would develop it in an acid solution and they'd neutralize it and try to recover as much of the silver as they could. And then eventually, they would just wash it off with wash water. Well, it wasn't a hazard unless you really screwed up. But by the time it got to the rinse water, in the first place, there was never any radiation on it anyway, it just left some silver on that track. And so there was a little bit of acid in the process, but by the time it got to the rinse water, there wasn't much left. It was pretty well neutralized. So they wanted to get rid of the rinse water. And I was pretty sure that's what they dumped.
So anyway, one of the police guys who was with us had called the base and got ahold of base military police who found these guys and cornered them and got them kicked out [of the base]. So here they come down the street, and I can just imagine these guys seeing all these police cars and fire trucks. It was quite a spectacle for the guys to drive up to.
TSR News Group: Yes, I can imagine.
Richard: So they parked and got out of their vehicle and walked over to find out who they could talk to. So everybody pointed to me, and there I was in sweats, I didn't even have my badge or credentials with me or anything! So I asked them a few questions about the process, and they admitted to dumping the stuff. So we went into the truck so they could demonstrate it for me. Of course, all the firemen and all the cops wanted to get in as well. It was pretty funny. And they went through the process just like I assumed they did. So I asked them where the source was. They said it was in the PIG. And so at that point, I was pretty reassured that we didn't have a radiological spill.
The cop that was in charge was pretty bummed because he was planning on having a great citation of these guys. And I said, "Well, there's still a violation." And he perked up, and I said, "Yeah, wastewater needs to go in sewage." And so I gave him the citation for illegally disposing of wastewater in the health and safety code. So I gave it to him, and he gave a nice summons for both of them to go to court. And I went to court on it, which was pretty funny, I never went to court on any other radiological spills. And I'd never gone to court on all the sewage spills that I'd responded to. Anyway, I got to court, and the first guy, the DA didn't know about him, and the judge let him go with a small fine. But with this guy, we were all there, and the DA wanted to put him in jail. He kind of freaked out. Once the fate of the first guy was revealed, the second one received the same fate.
As a new manager, I was told that if I really wanted to develop a program, that I needed to do so without any county money. They weren't going to give me a dime, and that included people and equipment. So I needed to come up with a fee-based method, which I never liked, but nevertheless, that's what everybody was doing. So I let the regulated community know, and this was a pretty good-sized community, I would hold two hearings, one in the Santa Barbara area, and another one in North County near Santa Maria because they're far enough apart.
So anyway, these meetings needed to be held in a fairly large room, and they were always standing room only, and nobody was happy because they knew whatever news I gave them wasn't going to be good news. So I ended up going to these things by myself. And these guys, they really didn't hold back because everybody else in the room was on their side. It was always me in the hot seat! I'd done three or four, and once, I think it was in Santa Barbara, one of these guys asked me, "How come you're the only guy that comes to these things?" Because I'm the boss, so anyway... Those were all eye-openers.
But the good news was, by doing that, I rarely had anybody go to the board of supervisors and complain that they didn't know anything about it. The fact is one of the board members, and he only has one vote and he didn't much care for me or my program, was outvoted.
TSR News Group: That's good.
Richard: Yeah. I lived in his district, so I was into it for so long. I can remember one time when this guy was dumping hazardous waste in his backyard. So we told him he couldn't do that anymore, but we'd be back. And sure enough, we came back, and the owner wasn't there, but we wanted to do the inspection. The secretary was told not to let us in. Now it was obvious that this was a calculated move from the owner. We had a specific date for the re-inspection. She said no, we said, "No, you can't do that." The investigator was accompanied by his supervisor, and the supervisor called me and I advised him to ask for assistance from the police. The police were mainly for show and intimidation. We were able to finish the inspection and found he was still dumping his hazardous waste in the ground. This was a possible felony.
I wasn't happy at all that he went to his board member, the one who didn't like me or the program, who then called me on the phone and proceeded to—well, he reamed me. I suspected that the owner of the facility was probably sitting in the room with the board member when the supervisor called me up. But anyway, he threatened me with all kinds of things. And it was the next night, I was at a school meeting in Orcutt. My wife was a teacher in the school, and at the meeting was the aide of that supervisor. We knew each other, and he was a pretty reasonable guy. And we got to talking about the call to me, he knew about this exchange. And I said, "Look, you need to warn your boss that if he interferes with a felony investigation, we can hold him as an accessory after the fact."
TSR News Group: What kind of training did you have for these types of spills and such events?
Richard: Well, I had EPA training, which is really good. This was the early '80s, and there were no regulations from OSHA. So we were pretty much on our own. But anyway, I had training from the EPA. And then I was fortunate enough to get training from the Department of Energy. It's called RERO, which stands for Radiological Emergency Response Operations. And that was probably some of the best training I ever had. They paid for it all. Otherwise, we didn't have any money for this level of training because the county wouldn't authorize personnel outside the county, because of cost. The first week of training was held in Las Vegas, and it was all classroom stuff. And then the second week was held at the Nevada Test Site. The Nevada Test Site is a high-security site. It's north of Las Vegas, in the desert, and that is where they tested nuclear weapons and underground weapons as well. We went around some of the spots where they did the above-ground testing, and we walked up to the edge of the craters. We would look down and see that the sand had gotten so hard, it had turned into glass. Pretty amazing. Now, we were told that we couldn't take home anything from the site (some people wanted some of the "glass") because there's still some residual radiation. These bombs have no restriction in terms of the type of radioactive materials, and would remain radioactive over the next tens of thousands of years.
Anyway, one of the things you'll see when you watch some of these old movies is towns and villages as a nuclear blast blows through. I saw some of these towns. I couldn't visit them because of the same problem, but we got close to the city. They brought in animals to see what would happen, like sheep facing the blast area. All kinds of crazy stuff. They aren't doing that out here anymore. We were also told that Area 51 was part of this complex.
TSR News Group: Oh, wow…
Richard: Yeah, that's what we thought! We didn't get anywhere near that part of the site. That's what we were told. This site had set up a number of scenarios for us, and they used live radiation. For instance, they had a mock nuclear reactor set up. They were trained in case of terrorists.
TSR News Group: Yeah, of course.
Richard: They had us in what was supposed to be a nuclear power plant. We had an alarm going, and we had to open a valve to allow water to flow and cover the fuel rods. So I was in charge, and there were three teams of two. The first team came and I said, "Make sure you check any side rooms to see if there were people." Sure enough, there were a couple of people in there stranded. Well, it took so much time that those guys couldn't go back in because they used up all their air and were concerned about the length of the exposure. They hit a real high radiation area, and they weren't sure how to get around it. The second team went through all different scenarios, and they finally figured out it was only a narrow radiation stream, only inches wide. On the other side, there wasn't any radiation. But by that time, they were, again, out of air. So it was my turn with another man. He was pretty scared, and I said, "Well, we're going to run right through that in seconds." So we did. We went right through it and found the valve and got it opened, and we began to actually find more bodies and got another one, and that's when the exercise ended and we were successful.
Another one was, in some ways, more interesting. We responded to a truck. This truck had been carrying radiation in small packets and had rolled over and was on fire. So when we arrived, there was the truck, it had clearly rolled over and was in flames, and there were these packets that were radioactive. There were also some downed power lines. Unfortunately, one of the first things that happened was two of my guys who were closer to their truck inadvertently stepped on the power lines. So the guys that were overseeing the exercise put them down as injured. So I needed an ambulance, I had two injured from the truck, and now I had two more of my guys injured. Well, there was an ambulance right there, but the ambulance had broken down. That was real, it was really broken down. That wasn't part of the scenario. But I still needed an ambulance. So I grabbed one of my other guys, I sent him back down the road where there was a guard station. He went down to chat with the guard, and in the meantime, I had a woman on the team who was really well-trained on radioactive material... So I had her, I had a couple of guys, and I assigned the three of them to handle the radiation. So we just needed to wait for the ambulance while she and her crew were doing that.
In the meantime, my guy comes back from talking to the cops. He said, "Well, hey, he's going to take care of it." Well, it turns out that the guard had no idea that we were doing a training exercise. He thought this was real! He thought we did have a truck overturned and on fire, and that we had four injured people. What happened was, the folks that were supposed to oversee the training exercise had missed my guy going down and talking to the guard. So when we reported it to the guard, the guard called operations. Operations put this entire test site on alert. So everybody right now is on super alert… what's going on? It wasn't until we got to the training room that we found out this occurred, although we didn't get the full details. The instructors, I think they were strongly warned about letting this happen. So that was exciting, at least for us as we didn't do anything wrong. We felt bad for the instructors even though they said everything was okay.
After that training was over, I had to fly home, and since the flight consisted of a small commuter plane, the airline was a small local airline and they're not in existence anymore. So the aircraft only held between 12 or 15 passengers, it wasn't that big. It was a nice day to fly, no clouds, blue skies. We were up there for not too long, and the pilot comes down on the line and says, "Hey, there's no smoking on this aircraft. Whoever is smoking, will you please put your cigarette out?" Everybody looks around. Nobody is smoking. One of the passengers yells back to the pilot, "Hey, it's the plane that's smoking." Now, this was prior to 9/11. So the cabin door was really a curtain, so it was easy for them to hear us and vice versa.
TSR News Group: Yeah, you don't see that anymore. Just a curtain.
Richard: So you could hear rustling up front, and the smoke was coming out from under the pilot's seat! And he comes out a little later and says, "We've figured out what it was. It's a problem we've had in the past, and it's just a little fan. A recirculation fan. We've turned it off, so it shouldn't be any more trouble." So I noticed we were getting ready to land, and I could tell looking out the window there was nothing but desert. By now, we were in California.
So he puts it down on this runway. Now, the runway was built by the Navy years ago, and they gave it up, and it was being used as the local domestic airport. So he lands, and we all get out of the airplane and go into the terminal. Well, there weren't enough seats in this terminal for all the passengers. It was really small. And we also found out real quick that there were no rental cars and no passenger flights. Couldn't get a flight out and couldn't get a car. So, in the meantime, the pilot gets on the payphone, it was the only option he had, a payphone outside. And they were on the phone for a while, but they came back in and said, "Well, we have talked to our maintenance personnel and they explained what the issue was, and we're going to go fix it, and we'll let you know." So they were gone for a little while.
They come back in. "Okay, everything's all fixed. Let's get on the plane." Well, we weren't particularly excited about it, but we also didn't have a lot of options. So begrudgingly, we all got back on this airplane, and he began to drive it out. We were taxiing, and before we even got to the runway it broke loose and that entire airplane filled up with smoke!
TSR News Group: Oh my goodness!
Richard: People were screaming. The co-pilot jumped out, opened a few windows, opened the door. One of the pilots taxied the plane to a remote corner at the airport, and everybody got off. The pilot mumbled as he was getting off, saying he wasn't getting back on that airplane. So I figured out, oh, we were stuck. So we all get off, and the pilot gets back on the phone. After a while, he said, "They're going to bring in another airplane, but it's going to be at least six hours." Six hours? We're in the Mojave Desert in August!
TSR News Group: Yeah, that's a long six hours.
Richard Runyon: There weren't even any vending machines. They did have a water fountain, so I went in, and there was a young girl working at the counter. She was the only employee there. I asked her if there was a car I could take into town. She goes, "Well, there is one, and I'll drive you in." So that was good. She drove me in, and the first place we came to was a liquor store. I had her stop, and I bought these cheap little coolers. I filled them up with water, sodas, and beer, and got a bunch of snacks. I threw a bunch of ice in there too, and everybody was really happy. Then a few hours later, we did the same trip again! So by the time the plane arrived, most of us were sitting around in the heat outside in the sun and drinking beers.
The plane was exactly the same model we just got off of. Anyway, we took off, and our first stop was in Bakersfield. We had some folks that were catching a plane to head North, and they were Germans. This German family was on its first visit to the US and the only other plane that they had been on was the one that they'd taken from Germany. So being on this little commuter plane was quite an adventure. It's funny because sometimes the announcements in airplanes are hard to hear. Well, there was only one member of this group that spoke much English, and she was having trouble. So she would turn to me when any announcement came over. The passengers would have some reaction, and then she turned to me, I'd tell her, and she communicated to the rest of the Germans, and they would have a reaction. So it was funny to see the multiple series of reactions.
And when we finally got to the airport, we were told there was going to be a delay. They got worried about the hotel where they had reservations that night and asked me to contact them, so I went and called. Sure enough, it was prepaid, so there was not a problem. Anyway, when we got to Bakersfield, they were the ones that got off the plane—well, everybody got off the plane because they were all friends by then. So we wished them well, hoped that they would enjoy their stay and all that. So off they went, and we got back on the airplane, flew into Santa Barbara.
Now my wife was supposed to have picked me up. She got down there and found out that the wait was another six hours. My daughter, she was pretty young, and she was really sick, so my wife made a decision to go home. So she took off, and then the guy, Ross Grayson, bless his heart, he took me home. So that's how I got there. Anyway, it was an interesting flight.
TSR News Group: That's actually why a lot of people are afraid to fly even now, many, many decades later. They fear that kind of nightmare scenario like you went through. Was it hard for you to get back on a plane after that?
Richard: No. Although there were a couple more incidents that people might want to hear. I was celebrating my 40th birthday, and the only thing I knew was that my wife had told me to take two weeks off. So I come home and she hands me my passport and airplane tickets for the Bahamas. She made arrangements with a good friend of ours who at that point was retired and was sailing around in his boat, and said meet me there. So I took this plane, and it was an L-1011, which is a configuration. The L-1011s had three engines, and they're all on the back of the plane.
Anyway, we lost an engine. You'd think that that was obvious, but nobody noticed because the plane is designed to fly on two, although they're required to fly with all engines working. So they landed—I think it was Houston Hobby—and the ground crew, who had never seen an L-1011 before, all came over and started checking it out. Anyway, that was fine, except when we got off. It was a Delta flight and there were no Delta attendants. Delta didn't fly out of this airport, so we didn't have anybody to help us. Anyway, I was successful in getting another flight out to Miami, but of course, I missed my connection to Nassau. Luckily, I convinced the Delta rep there in Nassau, I called him up, I convinced him to go out and look for my buddy, and tell him what had happened, and he did. He found him and told him I'd be back the next day, which turned out to be okay because it was still kind of bad weather all around. There was a hurricane. It didn't hit the Bahamas, but it was close enough, throughout the seas and wherever, that nobody could go anywhere anyway. So the next day, I flew in, I had a wonderful two weeks sailing in the Bahamas.
And another story that was a bit of a problem… I'm flying into Mexico City, and I was in the back of the plane and across the aisle from this gal who told me she was afraid of flying. So I tried to reassure her. Doesn't do much for somebody who is afraid. I felt like I should try and support her, but I knew it wouldn't help much. So she started drinking since she wasn't driving anywhere. About halfway into the flight, this guy did something. And again, this is prior to 9/11. He grabs a knife off of one of the serving trays and grabs a little girl who was walking down the aisle. He puts the knife to her throat and says, "Take this plane to Vietnam!"
Well, there's no way that this plane was going to make it to Vietnam. It was not equipped for that. But nevertheless, he had a hostage. So I had seen this guy put on the plane by ICE Customs and Border Enforcement, but they didn't stay with him after putting him on the plane. They left him. But I think the Delta flight attendants were watching, because as soon as he made that announcement, this big Delta attendant ran by me, and as I was trying to get up he knocked me back on my chair, so what'd I have to do? They were rushing by and they grabbed this little Vietnamese guy. Hauled him up to first class where they strapped him in a chair, handcuffed for the rest of the flight. So that was over pretty quick. So I'm having a cup of coffee a little while later. I asked one of the flight attendants if that was the way you obtained an upgrade to first class. She was still a little shaken. I guess she didn't find the humor in it.
TSR News Group: [lots of laughter] Too soon, huh?
Richard: Yeah. And just about then, a gentleman comes back and says his daughter is all freaked out. This was the girl who was the hostage. So I said, "Yeah, I'll tell you what happened." So I explained to him that she was a hostage, but the knife didn't hurt her. And I just saw his eyes getting bigger and bigger. He had no idea! So anyway, it was good that it didn't turn out bad.
So whenever we were about to land in Mexico City, it always seemed a bit bumpy up and down. Mexico City's so high that it always seems like the approach is rough. Then we got over the runway and we got slammed all over. I'm looking out the window, and I could see the runway below us because I'm looking over the tips of the wings, they're flipping from one side to the other. It was spooky.
And then the airplane feels like it's got a little power, and all of a sudden, that drops off. We land, the pilot came on and said, "We got caught in the backwash of a 747." And he said he was about to abort the landing when at the last minute we were out of the backwash so he could land the plane. That was a little scary landing. And the girl across the aisle, the one who was afraid of flying, now had witnessed an attempted hijacking and a scary landing, and she was now fairly drunk. I often wondered how she got home. Anyway, seated next to me was a Mexican national, and he asked me, "Is this what you guys mean when you say 'almost bought the farm'?"
TSR News Group: [laughter] That certainly is a situation where that phrase would apply! Wow. That's an inordinate amount of close calls in airplanes for one person to have. I think that even one of those would be enough to make most people never want to get on a plane again. But it's not an option, you had to fly a lot of different places, so you had to get right back on it.
Richard: Yeah, particularly if it's an outbound flight and you want to go home.
TSR News Group: Exactly. Trip's over, you have to get back home, what are you going to do, stay there? You've got to get home. So what advice can you offer people in situations like that?
Richard: Well, you don't want to stop flying. I mean, statistically, it's pretty safe. And remember, I evaluated risks for many years, so I'm convinced that even though I had some bad experiences, it's important to note that nobody was injured. When we landed in Mexico City, we just sat there for a while. The Federales came on to arrest our hijacker. I'll bet you he's still in a Mexican jail.
TSR News Group: Probably is.
Richard: I would encourage people to fly. It is safe.
TSR News Group: Yeah. They say it's even safer than driving in a car.
Richard: Yeah. The difference here is that when you're driving in a car, particularly if you're the driver, you feel like you have some control. Whereas, if you're in an airplane, you don't have any control. You don't even know what's going on most of the time—particularly now when nobody's allowed in a cockpit, behind that metal door. So it could spook you because you don't have that feeling that you have some control, and I think that's what makes people think that it's harder to deal with.
TSR News Group: Yes, it is. It's that lack of control. And the altitude doesn't help either. Because if there's an accident on the ground, at least you stand a chance of surviving, but if you fall from the sky, odds are you're not going to survive. So I think that that's part of it, too. But then again, on the other side of that same coin, when you're flying, you're not contending with 10,000 other planes all around you, like you do with cars when you're on the ground.
Richard Runyon: Exactly.
For more information on Richard Runyon, please visit his official website here. Notably, Mr. Runyon's site has welcomed over one million visitors and counting since its summer 2022 debut. Don't forget to bookmark Richard Runyon's website, so you can stay on top of all announcements and updates, including the next three installments of "A Story to Tell".
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