Thursday, March 31, 2005

Spill Forces Evacuation

What a traffic mess this has caused. I had a lunch meeting with a couple of friends at The Executive on Hwy 90 where they are re-routing traffic and it was insane. It took me over 20 minutes to get from the interstate exit to the restaurant when normally it would only take 3-5 minutes.


Spill forces evacuation
Thursday, March 31, 2005
Staff Reporters
A tractor-trailer rig hauling a highly explosive, toxic chemical overturned Wednesday morning as it exited Interstate 10 in south Mobile County, forcing the evacuation of dozens of businesses and homes but no injuries, authorities said.

People within a half-mile radius of the spill were evacuated and several roadways were closed during the ordeal that began shortly after 7 a.m.

Closing the roads -- including I-10 in both directions at Rangeline Road in Tillman's Corner -- led to tremendous traffic jams as drivers tried to find alternate routes. I-10 remained closed late into the night Wednesday.

Cpl. Marcus Young, a Mobile police spokesman, said that before I-10 was closed there were several, minor vehicle crashes on it as people slowed for a better view of the wrecked truck and the many emergency vehicles.

According to Steve Huffman, a Mobile Fire-Rescue Department spokesman who was on the scene, the company that owns the truck said about 400 gallons of the approximately 5,000 gallons of epichlorohydrin leaked from the damaged tanker.

Huffman said, however, that the Fire-Rescue team estimated about 100 gallons had spilled.

The company that owns the wrecked truck estimated the spill at about 400 gallons.

Dean Ulloch, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's emergency response coordinator on the scene, described the chemical as "very nasty stuff ... very explosive, very toxic." He said it hangs close to the ground, and "if you can smell it, you're too close."

Exposure to sufficient quantities of the gas can cause severe damage to the lungs, and can damage the liver, the kidneys and the nervous system, according to hazardous substance data from federal agencies. It is also a severe skin irritant, and passes easily through the skin. The New Jersey Department of Health notes that it is a probably carcinogen, and should he handled with extreme caution.

Danger of fire:

But firefighters were also concerned about another attribute of the chemical.

"It has a flash point of about 87 degrees, meaning if it reaches 87 degrees it could cause a fire," Huffman said.

Late Wednesday afternoon Ulloch said at the scene his first priority was to oversee a safe transfer of the contents of the truck, and his second priority was to control any environmental impacts.

Ulloch said the small quantity of chemical that had spilled had been stabilized to slow its spread. The overturned truck, he said, had been grounded to prevent any sparks and crews were waiting for the proper valves to allow them to pump much of the chemical out of the wrecked truck and into another truck.

Two loads of sand were brought to the scene to build a dike around the damaged truck and the spilled chemical did not spread into a nearby ditch, said Huffman, the fire department spokesman.

Cleanup continues:

Transfering the chemical began about 9 p.m., Huffman said. He said the crew hoped to have the overturned truck emptied and moved by 1 a.m., allowing the interstate to be reopened, although the exit ramp would remain closed while the cleanup continued.

The evacuation order was issued by the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department. Huffman said about 6 p.m. that residents who were evacuated should not expect to sleep at home Wednesday night.

"We try to err on the side of caution," he said. "We are not going to move everybody back in until we are positive everything is clear."

Dean Byrnes, the plans and operations officer for the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency, said that the decisions about evacuation were made at the site by the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department. He said EMA officials made sure that portable toilets and food, provided by the Salvation Army, were available to workers in the field.

Paula Tillman, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross Alabama Gulf Coast Chapter, said at the scene that a shelter for the evacuees had been set up at Government Street Baptist Church in the 3400 block of Government Boulevard. By 10 p.m., only four people had showed up at the shelter, she said.

Huffman said the overturned truck, from Freeport, Texas, was eastbound on the interstate when it exited at Rangeline Road in Tillman's Corner shortly after 7 a.m. and overturned.

The truck was headed to Degussa Corp. off Rangeline Road and a few miles south of the crash site, Huffman said.

Driver apparently unhurt:

Huffman said the driver of the truck that overturned was either driving too fast or "fell asleep" at the wheel. Huffman said that to his knowledge the truck driver was not injured.

"I would say he walked away, but I think it's more like he ran away," the spokesman said.

About 100 homes were evacuated, according to the Red Cross. None of those evacuated had reported to the shelter as of 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

I-10 from U.S. 90 to Interstate 65 as well as short stretches of Rangeline Road, Halls Mill Road and other streets in the area of the spill were closed to traffic.

Traffic was rerouted around the blocked roadways, and there were reports of traffic jams on Cottage Hill and Schillinger roads, two of Mobile's main thoroughfares. Some motorists said it was taking from 45 minutes to an hour longer than usual to get around the site.

Business delays:

The traffic snare caused long delays at businesses that rely on deliveries.

As cars and 18-wheelers crept slowly by along U.S. 90 a few miles north of Tillman's Corner, Jesse Ferguson, 65, of Irvington stood with his arms crossed and his back against the brick sign in front of Fausak Tire Center.

Ferguson said he had been staring at traffic since 7:30 a.m., when he arrived to have the brakes on his car replaced. It was then nearly noon.

"It was supposed to be a 30-minute job, but they had to order my brakes from Mobile," he said, nodding at the choked-up road. "My brakes are apparently out in this mess somewhere."

Jimmy and Anne Watt sat in the Taco Bell on U.S. 90 in Tillman's Corner, eating an early lunch and hoping the traffic would clear up a little before they had to hurry back to their Dauphin Island Parkway home.

They care for their quadripelegic son, and didn't want to leave him home alone too long, they said.

"We just wanted to come to Wal-Mart and look at some pretty flowers," Jimmy Watt said. "Instead, we got caught up in this. We decided we might was well have a full stomach while we sit in traffic."

Keith Jones, a spokesman for the Degussa plant, said at the scene that epichlorohydrine is mixed with other chemicals at the plant then sold to the pulp and paper industry to be used as a filler.

Huffman said epichlorohydrine is a solvent that also is used to make plastics.

Teams respond:

Members of the Mobile fire department hazardous materials team and members of a similar team for Degussa responded to the crash.

The fire department team was able to stop the leak about 9 a.m., according to Huffman. He said the plan was to transfer the chemical into another tanker truck and move the damaged truck to a safer area.

The Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse and the Wal-Mart Supercenter as well as numerous other smaller businesses were evacuated following the spill.

Wal-Mart officials at the company's corporate office said the corporation would not comment on the evacuation and how much it cost in lost business.

Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman at Lowe's corporate office in North Carolina, also would not comment on what the evacuation cost the company.

The company's concern was "the safety of our employees and our customers," Smith said. She referred other questions to Doug Hartley, manager of the Lowe's that was evacuated.

Hartley said about 75 workers and 75 customers were evacuated. It went off without a hitch, he said.

"Police came in and let us know there was a mandatory evacuation and it was an extremely volatile chemical that had spilled and shut down the business," Hartley said.

"The biggest thing was to get our folks out and the customers out as quickly as possible. It took about 15 minutes to shut the store down, and it was very orderly."

He said the store planned to reopen at its usual time today at 6 a.m. The store usually closes at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, he said.

A U.S. Postal Service news release said that as a result of the evacuation no mail was delivered Wednesday to homes and businesses along Higgins Road, Cyprus Shores Road and Rangeline Road.

U.S. Environmental, a Mobile company that cleans up chemical spills, will handle the cleanup, Huffman said.

(Environment Editor Bill Finch and Staff Reporter Russ Henderson contributed to this report.)


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