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Spill temporarily shuts down blocks around plant

Sep. 08, 2009 @ 10:11 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Clean-up will continue Wednesday at the Flint Group Pigments plant, after a leak from a railroad tanker Tuesday forced officials to order street closings and a shelter-in-place for some Huntington residents and businesses.

Authorities estimate about 50,000 pounds of the chemical aniline leaked from a railroad tanker car just after 9 a.m. Tuesday morning at Flint Group Pigments, site of the former BASF plant in the 2400 block of 5th Avenue in Huntington. The spill prompted a shelter-in-place for the 2400 to 2600 blocks of 3rd and 5th avenues and the complete closure of 5th Avenue at 20th Street. Both orders were lifted at noon.

Cabell County EMS transported one employee to St. Mary's Medical Center. The transport and shelter-in-place were precautionary, officials said.

Interim Huntington Fire Chief Tim Provaznik said crews conducted continuous air quality monitoring at the site. Inside the plant, monitoring found aniline levels almost below the detection point. Outside, the levels remained zero at all times.

"It's a serious incident, but everything came together in a timely fashion," he said. "In the grand scheme of things, this whole thing seems to be a minor event."

Joe Ochsner, site manager for Flint Group Pigments, said about the plant's on-site emergency response team provided an immediate response. All employees quickly were accounted for and the plant's neighbors were notified.

Johnathan Long, a manager at Stewart's Hot Dogs, received a phone call from Ochsner himself. He recalled Ochsner saying the substance could be flammable. Long, a bit scared, heeded the warning and fled east.

"He was like 'You need to get out of there right now," Long recalled.

Long later met up with fellow manager Jeremy Ellis, who left for a routine bank visit moments before the phone call. They joined with workers from Steiner's. Both of them, along with Steiner's employee Tom Potter, heard a continuous siren just after 9 a.m. They estimated it lasted for about five to eight minutes.

"That is extremely unusual," Potter said.

Marshall University notified students of the leak and the closure of roads through its emergency alert system. It said "at this time there is no threat to our Huntington Campus." The alert system gave an all clear notice around noon.

Ochsner explained aniline is not an extremely volatile material from a vapor standpoint, but he said it is toxic nonetheless.

Aniline spilled as crews offloaded it from the railroad tanker car, which traveled to Huntington from the Gulf Coast, Ochsner said. The offload process involves plant workers connecting to the rail car and adding pressure. Ochsner was unsure as to the cause of Tuesday's leak.

"Some component in there obviously has failed," he said of the process.

Michael Castellani, chairman of the Marshall University Chemistry Department, described aniline is a common raw material for many dyes and pigments.

Aniline spilled from the top of the rail car, flowed through a drain and into the plant's process sewer system. Ochsner described that to be a contained sewer system on site. Sewage is processed at the plant and later discharged into the public sewer.

Ochsner and Provaznik said the aniline was contained and no threat existed to the city's sewer system. The Huntington Sanitary Board was on scene as a precaution.

"We've brought in all of the key players," Provaznik said.

State spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told The Associated Press that a crew from the state Department of Environmental Protection would supervise the cleanup.

Ochsner expected the cleanup process to begin Tuesday, but the spill and aftermath forced the plant to closed for the remainder of the day.

The plant's on-site emergency team provided an immediate response. Ochsner said the group of volunteers is trained to extinguish small fires, contain leaks and use foam to control a situation.

Provaznik praised the group's effort. He also complimented the Cabell County 911 Center and others who responded to the scene. It was the county's first major emergency since its new 911 center opened this summer.

Ochsner said the cleanup will continue through Wednesday, and the plant will be shut down until further notice.

"I don't expect we'll have much in operation," he said. "Probably just finish some things that were in progress (Tuesday).

"I don't want to speculate and say when we'll be operational, but probably in a matter of days," he added.

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