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Halliburton spill results in acid cloud More than 220 people evacuated to mall

Jun 7, 2006 | The Daily Times
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When the air became thick with the smell of vinegar Monday night, Luis Lopez said he found his wife in the kitchen and asked her if she had spilled a bottle of the liquid.

Learning that his wife had not, Lopez, 42, of Farmington, said alarms went off in his head.

"I said, 'Whoa, this is not good.'"

Lopez, who lives on Gila Street near Halliburton Energy Services, said he works for Ark Sales and Service, an oil company in Flora Vista. He said his training in oil field safety has taught him to recognize chemical threats by using his sense of smell.

The smell that alarmed Lopez turned out to be an acid cloud that occurred at Halliburton at approximately 10 p.m., said Mike Mestas, hazardous materials team coordinator for the Farmington Fire Department.

"What we were dealing with last night was approximately 600 gallons of acidic acid with 10 percent acidic and anhydride solution," he said.

Halliburton employees were mixing acid in a concrete containment area when a spill occurred, said Farmington Fire Chief Robert Martin.

The spill was a non-issue, he said, but the vapor cloud that resulted was dangerous.

"The acid reacted with something the cloud was an irritant, I believe the flash point is 103 degrees," he said.

"It may cause eye, skin and respiratory burns, may be harmful if swallowed, it is combustible, and it reacts violently with water, and has a flash point of 103 degrees," Mestas said. "The temperature was 93 degrees last night, 10 more degrees and it would (have) burst into flames."

Martin said that residents in the area were not in danger of being asphyxiated by the cloud. The acid vapors were not concentrated enough to be much more than an irritant, he said, adding, however, that the problem was that "everyone reacts differently."

Mestas said the chemical's trade name is Acidizing Composition, an anhydride acid. He said they use the acid for fracturing gas wells. Halliburton had a 600-gallon tank of the chemical, of which 30 to 60 gallons leaked, he said.

Had all 600 gallons leaked, he added, it would have created a "big major acid cloud that would have worked its way south."

At 10:20 p.m., Farmington police officers drove through the two trailer parks adjacent to Halliburton grounds on Gila Street, according to Mestas. Authorities told residents to shut off their swamp coolers and to shut their windows. This measure, called "sheltering in place," lasted for less than 20 minutes after which Farmington Police evacuated the area, he said.

By 12:30 a.m., Red Cross estimated that authorities evacuated more than 220 people to two locations: the Animas Valley Mall and Gateway Park.

"This (was) a Hazmat Level 2 emergency," said Gordon Bennett, disaster action team coordinator for the Red Cross. "I've been with the Red Cross for 15 years and I have never had this situation before."

Red Cross set up what Bennett called a "comfort station" in the Animas Valley Mall parking lot. They offered coffee, snacks and other comforts.

The mall became the evacuation location because it was large and could provide evacuees with shelter, said Farmington Police Chief Mike Burridge.

Though the Red Cross served whoever approached the comfort station, some of the evacuees were not pleased with the relief services offered to them.

Angel Castillo, 15, was huddled in the back of a flat-bed truck with her two sisters and their two children. Angel said she felt "horrible," nauseous. She had been vomiting clear liquid in the parking lot for several hours.

Latisha Castillo, Angel's 23-year-old sister, said Angel was outside wringing clothes when the "cloud" appeared. She said Angel became sick almost instantly.

Angel said when she sought help from the Red Cross, they told her to go to the hospital.

"I didn't want to go to the hospital, I wanted to stay here with my sisters," she said, adding the Red Cross should have provided more on-site services. "They didn't even have aspirin."

Lillian Rose, executive director of the Red Cross, said they have to operate under certain legal regulations.

"The legalities of handing out even an aspirin (are strict)," she said. "It is just the way it works."

Phillishia Castillo, 26, the oldest sister, said she and her two sisters were upset at the emergency evacuation. She criticized Animas Valley Mall administration for not letting evacuees use the facilities.

"What was the point of bringing us here if (they won't) even open up the restrooms?" Latisha added. "It's kind of rude. The least they could do is open up the bathrooms. People are sick."

Gila Street residents resorted to urinating in remote corners of the parking lot when they were refused access to the mall's facilities.

Bryan Charlie, 28, said the situation was "unbelievable."

"I went to the food court (at the mall) and they were not letting people in," he said. "I wish they had something here, a food stand, a port-a-potty, something."

Jeff Ring, general manager of the Animas Valley Mall, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the mall was not prepared to be a relocation site.

"Basically we weren't prepared to have a bunch of people inside the mall at 1:30 in the morning," he said. "We were glad to let them use the parking lot, we just weren't prepared to do that (open the mall) on such short notice."

Ring said by the time they would have opened the mall, the situation would have been over.

"We probably would like to visit with the police department if we are to be a site for the future," he said. "With a little planning (it could work)."

As many evacuees as there were who criticized the mall for failing to cooperate, there were also critics of Halliburton.

"Halliburton needs to be more careful," said Susan Murphy, 55, who lives on Gila Street. "This is a residential neighborhood."

Phillishia Castillo said something needs to be done about this accident.

"My brother works at Halliburton. He needs to call up his boss and put him on track," she said. "How could they have an acid spill at Halliburton?"

The Farmington Fire Department plans on seeking reimbursement from Halliburton for the expense of their services, according to Martin.

"What we are going to do we're going to bill them for our services. I am guessing, but right off the top of my head (it will cost) $10,000," he said.

Halliburton stated in a release that they are investigating circumstances surrounding the incident.
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