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Chemical linked to 2 Allentown fires

Oxidizer used in water purification also involved in Lehigh University fire Feb. 25.

03/16/00 By RON DEVLIN Of The Morning Call

Back-to-back eruptions of a chemical compound stored in drums caused two separate fires early Wednesday at Composite Particles Inc., a chemical processor along Emmaus Avenue in Allentown.

The fires are the second incident in less than three weeks involving sodium chlorite, an oxidizer used in water purification that was prepared at the Composite Particles plant.

On Feb. 25, sodium chlorite caught fire in a laboratory at Lehigh University, causing the evacuation of Jordan Hall and closing the university's Mountaintop Campus. Composite Particles prepared the chemical for CDG Technologies of Bethlehem, which operated the Lehigh University lab.

The drums that ignited Wednesday were awaiting shipment to CDG Technologies customers.

"This has us totally baffled," said Bernie Bauman, a chemist and president of Composite Particles. "We have gone out of our way to make it safe."

Allentown firefighters were called to Composite Particles about 3:22 a.m. after four industrial-size drums of sodium chlorite caught fire in a storage area.

Two hours later, after firefighters extinguished the first blaze and were preparing to leave the scene, two more barrels of the same compound erupted in a different section of the plant.

Several firefighters were in the area of the second incident, but were uninjured.

"I was walking into the building when the second blaze erupted," said Deputy Fire Chief Dan Sell. "I ran inside to see if everyone was OK."

The fires caused extensive damage to the Composite Particles building that abuts Emmaus Avenue at 2330 26th St., SW. So intense was the heat, Sell said, it buckled the roof.

Composite Particles is a block away from Advanced Environmental Recycling Inc., where a worker was hospitalized Tuesday after an oven reclaiming mercury exploded. The incidents were unrelated.

The Composite Particles fires were caused by a pressure buildup that blew the lids off 85-gallon drums holding the chemical, Sell said. He did not know what triggered the eruptions.

Sodium chlorite can be ignited by heat, shock or contamination.

The six drums that caught fire were prepared Monday and Tuesday, and were to be shipped Wednesday, Bauman said.

Composite Particles installs plastic piping in the drums, surrounds it with sodium chlorite and seals the unit, known as a canister. The canister is then activated with carbon dioxide and placed inside a larger drum for shipping.

CDG Technologies developed the canister technology as an alternative to traditional chlorine systems used in water purification. Unlike chlorine, the CDG Technologies canisters do not create cancer-causing chlorinated hydrocarbons as a byproduct, Bauman said. The CDG system is also more effective in killing spores and certain microorganisms, he said.

Bauman, who was on-site when the second fire erupted at Composite Particles, could not explain what caused the fires.

After the Lehigh fire, he said, Composite Particles had staff meetings and reviewed its production procedures. The plant was grounded to prevent electrostatic discharges, he said.

"It's a puzzle, they just went off on their own," he said of the 400-pound chemical drums. "That's the price of being on the cutting edge of new technology."

Tom McWhorter, CDG president, said sodium chlorite is a common industrial chemical. It is not an explosive, but an oxidizer that can cause very hot fires.

At Lehigh, McWhorter said, preliminary studies suggest friction created heat that ignited a 4-inch plastic pipe containing sodium chlorite. The lab remains closed, but CDG Technologies operates out of an office at the Ben Franklin Center on Lehigh's Mountaintop Campus.

Unless the companies figure out what is destabilizing the chemical, the future of the new technology would be left in doubt.

"Obviously getting to the bottom of this is key for us," said McWhorter. "We must understand this."

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the fires at Composite Particles, said Tom Doherty, who heads the agency's Allentown office.

The company was closed pending the outcome of the investigation.

Firefighters continued hosing down Composite Particles six hours after the fires were extinguished. About 20 to 30 chemicals, Sell said, are stored at the plant.

Composite Particles is a registered hazardous materials site, Sell said, so firefighters had a map of its interior and knew exactly where the chemicals were stored.


-- (, March 16, 2000

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