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West Pennsylvania Chemical Leak Causes Evacuation of 2,500

Oct 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Authorities in western Pennsylvania evacuated about 2,500 people due to “a hazardous mile-long cloud from a corrosive material leak at a chemical plant,” the Associated Press (AP) is reporting.

The leak took place at the Indspec Chemical Corporation plant located in Petrolia, Pennsylvania.   Butler County emergency officials said the leak was reported just before 5:00 p.m. this past Saturday.  The plant’s manager, Dave Dorko, confirmed that a material called oleum, which is similar to sulfuric acid, overflowed from a tank and instantly evaporated into the air. Indspec Chemical Corporation produces a bonding agent for the tire industry.

Oleum is a harsh reagent, is highly corrosive, can cause severe eye and skin burns, is harmful if inhaled, and is irritating to the to the respiratory system.  Oleum may also cause nose, throat, and lung injury; lung injury can be delayed.  Concentrated oleum will react with many organic materials and may also cause fire due to the heat of the reaction and although not considered flammable, oleum will react to most metals to form explosive hydrogen gas.  Oleum is also referred to as fuming sulfuric acid and has important uses in the manufacture and transfer of sulfuric acid compounds.  When added to water, it does not dissolve, but rather, reacts violently and tends to form a fine mist of sulfuric acid, which is difficult to manage.  In 1993, a significant oleum release occurred that absorbed moisture from the atmosphere, creating a mist of micrometer-sized sulfuric acid particles that formed an inhalation health hazard and produced adverse health effects on residents and workers over a wide area of California.  Oleum, is an oily liquid that is colorless to clear amber and is clear to slightly cloudy.

The AP reported that Freda Tarbell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said authorities were concerned about the potential for respiratory damage and skin burns, adding that a team with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was dispatched to the area from Wheeling, West Virginia to monitor air quality.  Authorities went door-to-door to warn the 2,500 people living in a three-mile radius around the plant to evacuate because of the oleum cloud, the AP said.

About 250 people were forced into shelters in nearby Karns City, North Washington, and Bruin, and officials said the rest likely went to stay with family.  Red Cross officials said they expected to shelter only 50 to 100 people overnight.   Dorko reported that all 30 plant employees were evacuated and there were no injuries.  Meanwhile, authorities reported that three residents were taken to hospitals with apparent respiratory problems.

The dense oleum cloud was reported as moving west and close to the ground late Saturday night.  While additional evacuations were not planned, residents in the cloud's path were advised to remain inside; close doors, windows, and vents; shut down any system that draws air from the outside; and extinguish any fires in fireplaces.  The plant will remain closed until the clean up is completed.

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