Smoke from USS Bonhomme Richard fire contained toxic chemicals, contradicting Navy claims

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Air sampling recently revealed that the Navy ship that burned in San Diego Bay early this month blanketed nearby communities with smoke containing toxic chemicals.

As black smoke poured off the USS Bonhomme Richard, people in portside communities complained of headaches and nausea, and residents as far north as Escondido reported smelling smoke from the blaze.

The findings from the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District contradict earlier statements by the Navy that "there's nothing toxic in there." Testing found more than a dozen potentially harmful substances, such as benzene, chloromethane and acetonitrile.

Related: Two other Navy ships caught fire just days after the USS Bonhomme Richard inferno

Still, state and local air-quality officials agreed residents have little to fear, though. Their relatively brief exposure to the toxic smoke is unlikely to cause any negative, long-term health effects, according to a review of the data by the state's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

"At those levels, over that short period of time, there were no known great health risks," said Donna Durckel, spokeswoman for the county's air district.

Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire on board USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020

Port of San Diego Harbor Police Department boats combat a fire on board USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) at Naval Base San Diego, July 12, 2020

Mostly, the fire produced fine particulate matter, a common pollutant created by everything from lighting bonfires to driving cars and trucks.

Community members have started organizing under the banner Navy Ship Fire Community Advocates. The group is working with several local law firms to explore potential legal action against the federal government.

The group maintains that the Navy should have alerted residents to the potential impacts sooner. It's now calling for the military to draft an emergency notification plan.

The San Diego air district issued the Navy a notice of violation for creating a public nuisance and contaminating the air a day after the fire started on July 12. The action will likely result in a negotiated financial penalty.

Top district officials said there was little the Navy could do to control the smoke after the fire started.

"Because of the magnitude of this incident, it would have been difficult to avoid these violations," said Mahiany Luther, chief of compliance for the air district. "I'm not aware of any measure that they could have implemented to prevent the impact on the communities."

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Related: The USS Bonhomme Richard fire raises questions about whether the Navy learned anything from its last ship fire