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Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, May 10, 2013

Residents return after chemical leak evacuation

Crew reports stopping leak

North Guadalupe Neighborhood residents evacuated early Thursday, May 9, were allowed to return home Thursday evening as crews made progress transferring a potentially dangerous chemical from a still-leaking tank to a safe container. By 6 p.m. Thursday, city officials announced all the hydrogen chloride had been removed and the leak had stopped.

A hazardous material crew from Airgas worked Thursday morning to stop up to 3,000 pounds of hydrogen chloride from escaping the faulty cylinder, and state environmental inspectors were on the scene at the Bayer CropScience facility on Erskine Street three blocks from Interstate 27 in Lubbock.

Airgas handled the bulk of the cleanup efforts because the faulty tank belonged to them, said Monty Christian vice president of U.S. Cotton Operations for Bayer CropScience. A truck from Airgas, which offers on-site safety services, arrived just before 9 a.m. Thursday to deal with the leak.

Bayer CropScience has operated its Lubbock facility at the same location for the past 15 years and there has never been an incident like this before, Christian said at an 8 p.m. news conference. However, Bayer CropScience will conduct its own investigation and review procedures.

“Out of this entire operation no one was hurt, and I think that’s a significant accomplishment,” Christian said. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions here and there’s going to be some follow-up with the state.” Christian said monitoring equipment went off Wednesday night and personnel used handheld monitors and hazardous-material equipment to investigate the tank, which was stored outside.

“They confirmed there was a leak and they actually saw where the leak was emitting from the tank,” Christian said. “It looked like it was from a valve, and that’s why it was a small gaseous leak.”

In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Lubbock Deputy Fire Marshal Robert Loveless said no injuries were reported from the leak that was detected about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. “Everything is going smoothly; the critical point, we believe, is passed and we’ve gotten to this point without any injuries, and the goal is to complete this process without any injuries,” Loveless said.

He said hydrogen chloride is “not compatible with human beings; we don’t want anyone hurt,” but added readings from 500 to 1,000 feet from the spill did not pick up any traces of hazardous fumes. “It’s not going anywhere. If that changes, we’ll let the public know,” Loveless said. “We have the staffing to rapidly evacuate if we need to.”

A mandatory evacuation affected up to 20 homes near Erskine Street and an additional 150 were given an optional evacuation notice. The evacuation zone was reduced to Erskine Street from Interstate 27. Ash Avenue remained closed during the decontamination process Thursday night. The entire area including Erskine Street should be open by the morning hours today.

Lubbock Assistant Fire Marshal Elliot Eldredge said fire and hazmat personnel have a computer program they use to determine how much of an area should be evacuated. In this incident, Eldredge said the evacuation area was in the shape of a plume and the computer program tells personnel when the shape of the plume should be changed.

A plume-shaped evacuation area was created because Wednesday’s incident was a leak and not a spill. “There’s no reason to displace people that it’s not going to affect and we update this as the wind changes,” Eldredge said. “We monitor the weather and try and stay ahead of that.”

About 200 families from the Guadalupe Neighborhood were evacuated, said City Councilman Victor Hernandez. The Red Cross set up a shelter at the Salvation Army at 15th Street and Avenue J, but few families used it. “If the danger is still present in the morning, we will keep it open longer,” said Bill Curnow, emergency services volunteer with the Red Cross, about 1 a.m. Thursday.

Classes at Guadalupe Elementary were canceled Thursday, but are expected to return to normal schedule today, said Nancy Sharp, Lubbock Independent School District spokeswoman.

“Law enforcement officials have advised Lubbock ISD that the new containment area around the chemical leak will not restrict access to the campus and the school day will be able to safely continue,” Sharp said in a statement late Thursday.

Christian said the company uses hydrogen chloride to get fiber off cottonseed. There was only one cylinder containing hydrogen chloride on site because it is the end of the season for Bayer CropScience. “It’s in a closed, confined space and people can’t get to it,” Christian said Thursday evening.

No injuries were reported at the seed quality processing assurance facility, Christian said. “It’s not explosive, but it’s corrosive to skin or if you inhale it,” he said.

Eldredge said he isn’t sure of the number of area businesses that use hydrogen chloride, but he said it is a common chemical. The chemical itself caused hazmat personnel to use the most protective hazmat suits available. “When you’re in that you’re basically zipped up inside of a plastic bag,” Eldredge said.

During these conditions, hazmat personnel wear suits with a full-face shield and must use a special breathing apparatus, which feeds a person air from a tank on his back. Air tanks for hazmat teams contain more than the normal amounts of air. “You have to get into the suit, walk in, do your work and then get back out, before you run out of air and get decontaminated,” Eldredge said. “So you’re on a strict timeline.”

All the fire stations do annual inspections of businesses so they know what chemicals are stored where, Eldredge said. Cleanup efforts were going better than expected, and in these situations Eldredge said hazmat crews plan for the worst-case scenarios and then work backward. He said this situation was taken seriously because you can’t take chances with people’s lives.

“I don’t think it could have gone any better. No one’s injured. There was no property damage,” Eldredge said. “You just can’t get any better than that.”

The Lubbock Fire Department made several Facebook posts about the incident:
=> “We are experiencing a large number of calls to 911 requesting information on this incident. Please do not call 911 unless you have an emergency. The latest information about this incident is being posted here and distributed to all local media outlets,” one post said.
=> But just before 2 a.m., an updated post said, “The actual substance in the vessel is hydrogen chloride. When released hydrogen chloride reacts with the moisture in the air to form hydrochloric acid it has a vapor density of 1.268, which means that it is heavier than air (it sinks) but is readily dispersed by wind.”
=> “We are using computer simulation software to predict where the cloud may spread based on predicted and current weather conditions,” said another post.

The Lubbock Fire Department’s Facebook page advised city employees working on Municipal Hill to not report to work Thursday, as personnel — including SPEC, LP&L, Meadowbrook Golf Course, Solid Waste and Fleet — were not allowed into the area. (A-J Editor Terry Greenberg, reporters Chris Hoff, Adam D. Young, Karen Michael and Jennifer Loesch contributed to this story.)