What caused explosion, chemical spill at Modesto Junior College pool area?

Explosion causes damage at Modesto Junior College

A large explosion on the campus of Modesto Junior College's east campus near the pool around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 17, 2018, could be heard and felt in nearby neighborhoods.
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A large explosion on the campus of Modesto Junior College's east campus near the pool around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 17, 2018, could be heard and felt in nearby neighborhoods.

Modesto Junior College officials expect it will take several days to fully assess the damage from an explosion early Sunday at the east campus swimming pool that resulted in a chemical spill.

As more details emerged Monday, it appeared the blast shaking windows in surrounding neighborhoods originated in a carbon dioxide system in the pool room, a fire official said.

The east and west campuses were open Monday for summer courses and classes were in session. The college worked to relocate classes normally held in areas closed by the explosion and spill, an MJC spokeswoman said.

Officials closed the pool area, library, the MJC gymnasium, the men's and women's physical education buildings, nearby offices for PE staff, and the practice field to the west off Coldwell Avenue. The gymnasium and area around the pool were fenced off.

To assist students, information tents were set up at main entrances to the east campus.

MJC said no one was injured by the explosion that occurred around 6 a.m. Sunday, causing structural damage and broken windows near the pool. The spill resulting from the blast included a combination of chlorine tablets and muriatic acid, a common pool supply.

The spill was contained at the site and there was no threat to the surrounding neighborhood, authorities said. A hazardous materials team responded to the scene and was monitored by the Stanislaus County environmental resources department.

A campus emergency was declared Sunday. As a precaution, electricity, water and gas were shut off to buildings near the site of the explosion, said Coni Chavez, public affairs director for Yosemite Community College District. Faculty and students were advised to avoid that area of campus during the cleanup operation and repairs.

Modesto Fire Chief Alan Ernst said Monday the explosion might have been triggered by the failure of a carbon dioxide system in the pool room housing supplies.

“It appears it was not related to chlorine,” Ernst said. “There was no threat to the public outside the area of the college.”

The explosion scattered chlorine tablets around the immediate area and compromised a drum containing muriatic acid, the chief said.

Ernst said the spilled acid was contained by a concrete vault and a broken water valve helped to dilute the spill for emergency responders. The cleanup operation was turned over to MJC with oversight by county DER.

Luckily, no swimmers were at the pool facility when the blast occurred.

“There could have been serious injuries,” said Dr. Mark Fahlen, who swims at the MJC pool Monday through Friday in a Modesto Area Aquatic Club program. “It could have been awful. I swim in that far lane, and the filter room and pool room are right next to it.”

The aquatic club's internet site said Monday that practice was canceled until further notice.

Chavez said an insurance provider and contractor were assessing the damage and necessary repairs Monday and will review the mechanical and pool systems. There was no preliminary estimate on the damage.

The college does not know how long the swimming pool and the affected buildings will be closed. Chavez said the explosion did not damage the library; it was closed because it’s on the same electrical system as the buildings near the pool.

The spokeswoman said that weight training and soccer classes were moved to other locations, and it appeared another site was found for a water aerobics class. Other arrangements were being made for summer activities held in the closed facilities.

According to campus memos, MJC expects the college library and learning center will be closed through the week. Tutoring and research assistance for students were moved to alternative locations.