N. CAROLINA - More Than 6,000 Gal. Hydrochloric Acid Leaks From Malfunctioning Pressure Valve

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Title: Acid leak forces 700 to flee


By ERIKA BOLSTAD, Staff Writer News & Record

GREENSBORO -- More than 6,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked Thursday morning from a faulty valve on a railroad car at a Greensboro chemical company.

About 700 people were temporarily evacuated after the leak created a chemical vapor cloud over an industrial neighborhood off Wendover Avenue and Edwardia Street. But authorities said the spill of the highly corrosive acid was contained to company property. No one was hospitalized.

"The facility here has a good containment system," said David Spears, an assistant Greensboro fire chief.

Officials with Holland Chemical International said they were much better prepared to handle Thursday's spill than a 1997 leak that sent more than 18,000 gallons of acid gushing from a storage tank and into a nearby stream.

HCI was fined $15,114 in 1998 after state regulators found problems with a containment system and emergency pumps. Since 1997, company officials said they've added a secondary containment dike and other safeguards.

"The entire property has been recontoured so that it's a containment area into itself," said Rick Amos, general manager of Greensboro's HCI plant.

The spill was reported by HCI employees just before 9 a.m. Thursday, fire officials said. Workers were unloading hydrochloric acid from a cylinder-shaped railroad car when acid began leaking from a malfunctioning pressure valve.

When firefighters with the city's hazardous material teams arrived, the entire contents of the railroad car had leaked.

Firefighters worked to keep the spill contained and out of nearby Buffalo Creek, said Clarence Hunter, an assistant Greensboro Fire Chief. They also monitored air quality and wind direction to determine who to evacuate.

The hazardous material response trucks have on-board computers to plot weather conditions and the type of chemical being released. Using the computer models, officials are able to map estimates of the effect of vapor clouds and plan evacuations accordingly, Hunter said.

By 9:30 a.m., firefighters and police had evacuated almost all businesses and a few homes in a half-mile radius of the spill. Fire officials estimate that 650 to 700 people were evacuated from a half-mile radius around HCI. Paramedics treated one woman for respiratory problems, but no one else was injured as a result of Thursday's spill.

Most businesses, including the chemical company, were back in operation by lunchtime.

The spill brought out 11 fire companies, although only four of the 11 companies that responded were directly involved in containing the acid, Hunter said.

"We tend to go worst-case scenario," he said.

HCI officials said they will take a closer look today at why the valve on the railroad car failed. The railroad car is owned by a supplier that manufactures the hydrochloric acid, Amos said.

Widely-known in Greensboro as Worth Chemical, HCI is the fifth-largest chemical distributor in the world. HCI bought Worth Chemical in 1995.

The company has had at least two previous leaks of hydrochloric acid in the past five or six years, said David Russell, an environmental specialist with the water quality division of the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources.

Russell could not recall specific details of the first spill, but said that it was a relatively small leak. The company was fined, but Russell could not recall how much.

HCI had a similar leak in July 1997, when 18,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid seeped from a broken storage tank at the plant. Most of the acid gushed over a concrete barrier and into a nearby stream.

Within three days, more than 2,500 fish died in South Buffalo Creek, some as far as three miles downstream from the spill. Rain gradually diluted the acid. But trees and other vegetation were burned and even destroyed by the fumes from the vapor cloud released in the leak, Russell said. No injuries to nearby residents were reported.

Inspectors found in 1998 that the dike around the company's storage tanks was not watertight. They also found that the pumping system that was used to move leaking chemicals into a holding tank was unable to accommodate hydrochloric acid.

Company officials said that improvements they've made kept Thursday's spill from becoming a serious environmental hazard.

They also said that their continuing partnership with the Greensboro Fire Department helped contain the spill. The company invites the fire department's hazardous materials teams into the plant at least once a year for mock disaster training.

"Those measures worked," Amos said.

Hydrochloric acid, a colorless chemical with an acrid, irritating odor, is used in preparing many chemical compounds. It is corrosive to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes. Skin contact with the substance can cause burns; inhalation for prolonged periods can cause lung damage.

However, local environmental health officials said that Thursday's spill was quickly contained and should cause little worries about the environment or residents' health.

"The danger to inhalation is none," said Cheryl Tadlock, an environmental protection consultant with the Guilford County Health Department's Environmental Health Division.

Thursday's weather probably had mixed results on the vapor cloud, weather officials said. The light rain helped dissipate vapors, but the low cloud cover probably acted to trap them, said Deborah Moneypenny, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.

Officials at Evergreens Nursing Senior Health Care on Wendover Avenue initially had some concerns that the vapors would drift their way and cause problems for the 329 residents there.

"We just shut the air intake handler down," said Richard Sirianna, the operations manager.

Police blocked off Edwardia Street at Market Street and Wendover, prompting westbound traffic on Wendover to slow to a crawl near the intersection. Traffic was back to normal by noon, police said.

Staff writers Paula Christian, Peter Krouse and Tom Steadman contributed to this report.



-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 31, 2000

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