Friday, April 01, 2005

More on the Spill


Chemical truck wreck closed I-10 for 30 hours
Friday, April 01, 2005
Staff Reporter
After being closed for 30 hours due to the wreck of a tractor-trailer carrying thousands of gallons of a highly toxic chemical, a 5-mile stretch of Interstate 10 in south Mobile County was reopened to traffic about midday Thursday.

The crash on the off-ramp from I-10 east to Rangeline Road occurred shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, and the roads were reopened about 1:05 p.m. Thursday.

No injuries were reported, and about 100 gallons of the chemical did spill.

Mobile Fire-Rescue Department officials ordered the closure of the interstate and several surrounding roads, as well as several businesses in nearby Tillman's Corner, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse.

Residents evacuated:

People living in at least 100 homes within a half-mile radius also were told to leave.

"It was dangerous, and we were trying to prevent anybody from getting hurt or any further incident to occur," Mobile Fire-Rescue Department spokesman Steve Huffman said. "If we were negligent and didn't do a proper job, we could be sued for it."

The off-ramp remained closed late Thursday while the damaged truck and its tank trailer were removed. The truck's cargo of epichlorohydrin was transferred to another tank trailer.

Huffman said the damaged truck, from Freeport, Texas, was eastbound on the interstate when it exited at Rangeline Road in Tillman's Corner and overturned. It was hauling about 5,000 gallons of epichlorohydrin, which chemical experts say is highly explosive and toxic.

Bound for Degussa:

The epichlorohydrin was bound for Degussa Corp.'s Mobile plant, which uses the chemical in the manufacture of a filler it sells to the pulp and paper industry.

Keith Jones, a spokesman for Degussa, said the German company regularly uses epichlorohydrin but declined to reveal how much. He cited the need to protect trade secrets in a highly competitive business.

Jones said the amount of the chemical Degussa uses varies throughout the year, depending on fluctuations in orders for its product.

He said the company typically receives epichlorohydrin by rail, but the Texas-based supplier sometimes supplements the railroad shipments with trucks.

"That's how this thing transpired," he said. "Only recently, within the last several months, has the supplier not been able to supply it all by rail."

Degussa manufactures thousands of products, including components used in such common household items as toothpaste, pet food and medicine tablets. Worldwide, the firm has 4,500 employees in 90 countries, including roughly 800 at its Mobile plant.

Jones declined to characterize the risk posed by epichlorohydrin compared with the other chemicals in use.

"All chemicals, you have to respect," he said.

Jones said Degussa spends a great deal of energy training its workers in safety. It sent 11 employees to assist with the containment and cleanup following Wednesday's accident, he said.

Members of the fire department's hazardous materials team worked throughout Wednesday night and late into Thursday transferring the chemical to another truck.

Spill contained:

An earthen dike was constructed around the 100-gallon spill to contain it, and Huffman said none of the chemical got into a drainage ditch alongside the exit ramp and about 30 feet from the overturned truck.

Once the interstate was reopened, workers at businesses and people living within the evacuation area were told they could return.

Alabama State Trooper Capt. Oscar Kyles described the ordeal as "nightmare."

He said seven or eight troopers were brought down from the Evergreen post to help.

Officer Eric Gallichant, a Mobile police spokesman, said Thursday that about 50 of the department's officers took turns working at the crash site and helping control traffic along the detour routes.

"Hundreds of hours were spent by the officers at the scene, with some of those hours being overtime," Gallichant said.

Cost of the spill:

The police department's legal team "may attempt to determine if the trucking company is responsible for paying any of the overtime that was worked by officers," Gallichant said.

Gary Bourg, general manager of the Golden Corral restaurant in Tillman's Corner said the business lost about $20,000 in sales during the evacuation.

"We are just fortunate that nobody got injured, that it was taken care of real quick, and there were no injuries," Bourg said. "Corporately, we lost a lot of money, no doubt about it, but we will recover from that."

Just after police lifted their blockade of the area Thursday afternoon, Ed Sykes, general manager of Fire Mountain Grill on Rangeline Road, wore a slightly soiled apron as he rushed a staff of a half-dozen people to prepare the restaurant for dinner.

"We usually have about 80 people. We'll have a full staff later, but for now it's hectic," Sykes said. The corporate owners of the chain, Ryan's Restaurant Group, wouldn't let him say how much money the restaurant had lost during the nearly two-day closure. "But I can say it's a lot of money," Sykes said. "We're trying to open so we can hopefully make some of it back."

Doug Hartley, manager of Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse on Rangeline Road, said he had a full staff working in the store within 40 minutes of being notified they could reopen.

"That's what we spent our time doing when we were closed, staying in touch with workers, finding out where they were, keeping them up to the minute," Hartley said. Lowe's representatives at the company's North Carolina headquarters would not comment on what the evacuation cost the company.

Long-term effects?:

All of the businesses located in the evacuation area were impacted by the tanker spill but the long-term effect on the closure will depend on the business' particular category, said Mohan Menon, chairman of the Department of Market and E-commerce in the Mitchell College of Business at the University of South Alabama.

"Every business is impacted in the short term," Menon said Thursday. "There is an immediate loss of sales.

Menon said that the smaller, newer businesses may experience the hardest economic impact.

"Those businesses may not be established enough," he said. "They may not have the customer base because people just stop by. That once-in-a-while customer may not show up for a very long time."

(Staff Reporters Russ Hen derson, Brendan Kirby and Rhoda Pickett contributed to this report.)


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