Saturday, October 9, 2010

A flaming lake in the High Desert!

"Cornerstone Lake" Near Wigwam and Stephanie
One day, while exploring the desert near Stephanie and what was then Lake Mead Rd (now 215,) I noticed an old gravel pit in the desert.  It appeared to be shut down as the bottom of it was flooded with brown stagnant water and the digging equipment was gone.  It was a large, interesting area that offered great opportinities to explore.  One time, while doing just that, I let it get a bit later than usual.  Looking out across the water at the bottom I thought I caught glimpses of light reflecting off of the water.  It turns out, it was small flames coming out of bubbles floating to the top of the water.  I guess at the time, I just assumed that there was methane gas building up due to rotting debris at the bottom of the lake.  I was wrong.

Years later I had moved back into the area and noticed that the little rock quarry with a small puddle was now a full fledged 20 acre lake and it was now built into a flood control basin.  The land was being graded and something was being built in the area.  I thought at the time that they were just fixing up the area to make it pretty.  I would be wrong again.

Pepcon Site (Marshmallow factory to the right)
Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas Review Journal
It was around that time that I was doing an interview with a local police officer.  We got to talking about the area and he told me an interesting story. It turns out that in the past, he would get calls to the area around the lake to investigate small, blue flamed, fires in the sand.  He told me that when he would get to the area, there were places where small flames would be burning for no apparent reason.  They would start and stop around him, seemingly by themselves.  This went on for many years.  He did have an explanation though...  you see, ten years before he had noticed the flames in the desert, this police officer was the first responder to a major disaster that occurred right near this area, the Pepcon explosion.  It was an explosion that everyone that lived in Clark County at the time remembers well.

May 4th of 1988 in Henderson, NV was a calm, warm and quiet day - but this day would turn out to be one of the noisiest days in history, for this was the day that the Pepcon (Pacific Engineering & Production Co) rocket fuel plant blew up.  You see, Pepcon manufactured ammonium perchlorate for the NASA's space shuttle program in the 80's.  Due to the unfortunate Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, further launches of the shuttle were put on hold.  Between that date and May 4th, 1988 Pepcon continued to make the fuel for the shuttle, even though it was not needed.  They decided to store the fuel out in the open, unprotected, on location, in the desert next to the plant.  It continued to pile up and ammassed quite a large amount, 4 kilotons to be exact.  

"Well, how did it blow up?" you ask.  Well, there seems to be an official story and the local story.  The official story says that someone was doing repair work welding a pipe and a spark jumped over to a container of rocket fuel and started a fire.  The real story is that a worker was smoking a cigarette next to some containers and threw the butt into what he thought was an empty container and the rest is well, history.

The explosion was one of the largest ever recorded on video.  It turned over cars driving on Boulder Hwy.  It completely leveled the Kidd & Co Marshmallow factory that was next door.  It broke windows and blew open doors for 10 miles around, even as far and McCarran Airport in Las Vegas.  It actually measured a 3.5 on the Richter scale in Colorado!

Yea, I did mention that it happened to be caught on video, didn't I?  Strangely enough, two guys were working on the television transmission towers on top of nearby Black Mountain and they happened to have a video camera.  When they saw the fire in the distance, they aimed the camera in the direction of the factory and started taping.  When the two bigger explosions happen, you can actually see the shockwave roll across the desert.  When the biggest explosion goes off, you can see the marshmallow factory dissapear.  It is truely amazing.  Fred Gibson, one of the top officials at the company tried to blame the disaster on a gas pipeline that ruptured under the factory.    He said that perchlorate wasn't flammable.  Scientists disputed that, but um, yea...  you don't need to be a scientist to figure out that rocket fuel is flammable, come on!

Roy Westerfield, one of two PEPCON employees killed
in the disaster who courageously stayed behind to alert authorities as others evacuated.
Another interesting thing that happened in the explosion is that only two people died and both of them were considered heroes.   Roy Westerfield, PEPCON's Comptroller who stayed behind to call the Clark County Fire Department; and Bruce Halker, who used a wheelchair and knew that he couldn't get out in time through the rocky desert around the building.  While Roy was on the phone to the fire department, Bruce was making sure everyone else had gotten out of the plant safely.  75 people escaped from the plant that day, some by car and some on foot.  There were 350 people injured by flying debris.

Chemical monitoring well found near Sunset
and Gibson Roads.
So, Pepcon changed there name to Western Electrochemical and moved to Utah, the Kidd & Co marshmallow factory rebuilt it's plant in the same area and we are left with lots of rocket fuel...  contaminating the lake and desert but also contaminating Lake Mead, where our drinking water comes from.  They used to think it was harmless, but now people are saying that it can hurt your thyroid.  Hmm...  I have hypothyroidism...  I wonder...  nah, couldn't be.  The government says that you can safely drink water that contains 25 parts per billion of perchlorate in it.  Wells dug near Gibson Rd and Sunset Rd have as much as 650 ppb.  Wow, I sure don't like them figures!  Perchlorate was used as a medicine in the 1950's to treat overactive thyroids.  See, it stops your thyroid from working.  In California, the legal level is 11 ppb. and they have forced a cleanup of areas of Lake Mead due to the fact that they get water from there.  Enough thyroid talk, I could go on forever.  The monitoring wells can be found throughout the area and are still used today to measure chemicals in the groundwater.  

You can still explore these areas.  Where Pepcon once stood is now The Valley Auto Mall but some areas around the mall where there is still desert are quite interesting indeed.  Some of the debris from the factory can be found strewn about the place.  The little "fire lake" is now next to some new homes and is being turned into one of the largest parks in Henderson.  They do not allow swimming in the lake, since it is contaminated but they said the soil is fine.  I wouldn't let my kids play in the ground there though.  People saw flames out there.  Flames, in the sand.  Flames.  Burning sand.  It's just not right!

We also got a couple other things from the explosion -  Gibson Rd, named for John Gibson, the guy in charge of Pepcon at the time of the explosion and uncle to former Mayor of Henderson, NV and Lawyer for Pepcon, Jim Gibson.  We also have American Pacific Rd. named for the parent company to Pepcon.

Another company, Kerr-McGee also manufactured perchlorate about 1 mile from the Pepcon plant on the site of the old BMI factory near Timet.  The company's contracts were bought out by the new Pepcon company years ago and the plant shut down.  This also let to more buildup of perchlorate in our groundwater.  Do you have hypothyroidism?  Leave a comment below!


  1. Good Blog. Many people don't remember a book called, "HENDERSON BOOM TOWN". It was book of cartoons depicting what happened that day. I did the cartoons, printed and published the book, only 200 copies. They sold out in two weeks with very little advertising. A few officials at city hall were upset with me for printing the book so I decided not to do a second run. There's more to the story, but we won't go into that now. I just thought someone might be interested in seeing those cartoons from 1988. Here's the link:

  2. Great article John. Unless the acreage of the plant was huge, I do see one error in your article. The Ocean Spray plant was built on the land bought from PEPCON. That is a good distance from the Auto Show Mall.

    The cartoons are twisted but funny. Great job.

    Paul Jaques

  3. What people don't know is that if you look on the EPA site, the water in Lake Meade from I think 1999 to 2005, our percholorate level was 18 times the legal limit allowed in the drinking water...caused by building. Due to the construction caused the water to bypass the usual path and went straight into our drinking water. You look at the EPA site. So for about 6 years we were all contaminated. I ended up with thyroid cancer and my husband and son have had thyroid issues. Thanks Kerr McGee

  4. Sorry to hear that Tkimber. Please send me your email address... I would like to ask you a few questions.