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Published: Saturday, 3/25/2006

Toxic cloud from chemical plant forces dozens to evacuate homes

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

VICKERY, Ohio - A chemical reaction inside a holding tank at a hazardous waste facility spewed a cloud of toxic nitrogen dioxide over eastern Sandusky County yesterday, forcing dozens of residents to evacuate their homes for several hours.

Sheriff's deputies began knocking on doors in the area south of the Vickery Environmental Inc. plant on State Rt. 412 shortly after company officials notified authorities of the chemical release at 4:15 p.m., Sheriff David Gangwer said.

"It was very, very thick, and I had a great concern for the safety of those people," the sheriff said.

Nitrogen dioxide is a red-brown gas that is extremely toxic and can be fatal if inhaled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Contact with the chemical can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.

No serious injuries were reported. Sheriff Gangwer said one person noted eye irritation.

Brad Lawrence, director of the Sandusky County Emergency Management Agency, said a lot of gas was released.

"It was bad," he said.

The plume was visible to rush-hour motorists on the Ohio Turnpike, which crosses Route 412 near the plant. The cloud traveled southwest toward Clyde, and Chief Deputy Bruce Hirt said the sheriff's office received a report that it passed over the city's Whirlpool plant.

Mr. Lawrence said authorities and Vickery Environmental officials were unsure what caused the reaction and how much nitrogen dioxide was released.

The Vickery plant takes in industrial coolants and other waste, he said.

The reaction occurred in one of the plant's six 200,000-gallon storage tanks, where liquid waste is held before being injected into the ground at depths of more than 2,000 feet, according to Mr. Lawrence and David Pollick, Sandusky County health commissioner.

They said it was unclear what was in the tank, which was filled to 92 percent of its capacity when the reaction occurred.

Authorities said the gas poured from the tank for about an hour, until the chemical reaction subsided, partially with the help of neutralizing agents pumped into the tank by the Sandusky County hazardous materials response team.

"There was some kind of reaction that caused pressure in the system," said Lynn Brown, spokesman with the plant's owner, Waste Management Inc., in Houston. "The system worked properly and released the gas so the tank doesn't rupture."

The reaction was unusual because it created such a large amount of nitrogen dioxide, which resulted in the huge cloud that could be seen for miles.

Steve Lonneman, the plant's general manager, said there are 29 people employed at the plant and 15 were on site yesterday when the reaction occurred.

He said no employees reported any problems; the plant will resume operation today.

Shortly before 7 p.m., wispy yellow puffs could still be seen rising from the plant, but Mr. Lawrence said that by then the chemical was dissipating.

About 50 residents of an area bounded by Route 412, State Rt. 510, County Road 229, and County Road 244 were evacuated from their homes until 8 p.m. Others returning from work found sheriff's deputies and Ohio Highway Patrol troopers blocking roads to their homes.

Among them was Bonnie Overmyer, who found her husband, Gary, at Route 412 and County Road 232, a mile south of the plant at 5:30 p.m. He and a handful of other residents milled around the intersection, which was barricaded by a highway patrol cruiser and two troopers.

"So we can't go home, huh?" she asked her husband, a Riley Township trustee, who shook his head.

Annette Guggisberg's home on County Road 232 was outside the evacuation zone, but she walked down to the corner to ask the troopers if she and her daughters should evacuate.

"It scares you. It really scares you," she said, looking in the direction of the plant. "We've seen blue clouds before, but nothing like this. It worries you. It's nothing to mess with."

She said the cloud "was blood/beet red, and then it went to the orange and to the yellow."

Fred Snyder and his son John, 20, were headed back to their Ballville Township home from a fishing trip in Lake Erie's tributaries when his son saw an orange cloud on the horizon to the southeast.

"I thought we would just swing that way and see what was going on," said Mr. Snyder, 57. "I'm the guy that has to get the pictures of the alligator close up."

So they pulled off onto State Rt. 510 and got as close as emergency crews would let them. He took a few photos, then backtracked, and pulled off Whitmore Road to take a few more.

"Just knowing they have had trouble in the past, I really took the pictures just thinking somebody should document this," said Mr. Snyder, a professor with Ohio State University's Sea Grant College Program.

He said he was not worried about the gas cloud because the winds were at his back, but his son wasn't as sure and wanted to head home.

The National Weather Service office in Cleveland said the winds were from the north at about 5 mph.

Besides the sheriff's office, fire departments from Clyde, Townsend Township, and Margaretta Township in Erie County responded. Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA were expected in the evening, Mr. Lawrence said.

"It was pretty much determined by the local authorities that there was no threat," said Jon Gulch, of the U.S. EPA office in Grosse Ile, Mich. A coordinator from his office went to Vickery.

"We'll definitely want to know why, and work to prevent that from happening again," said Mike Gerber, of the Ohio EPA's district office in Bowling Green.

Mr. Pollick said the company and state and federal officials would investigate the chemical reaction and release.

"They will get to the bottom of this so it doesn't happen again," he said.

The health commissioner is chairman of a citizens' committee that monitors the facility and meets every other month.

"This plant has a lot of oversight," Mr. Pollick said.

The facility began as Ohio Liquid Disposal, which in 1964 located on a 44-acre site on Route 412.

The facility was in the news often in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s as the facility sought - and neighbors objected to - permits to inject liquid chemical waste into wells 2,800 feet deep. The facility had stored chemical waste in open-air lagoons.

Twice within a week in 1984, residents reported breathing trouble, burning eyes, and skin rashes when multicolored chemical clouds rose from the facility. Chemical Waste Management agreed to pay penalties to the state and Sandusky County for violating regulations and to improve the facility, including by closing the open-air lagoons.

In the early 1990s, Chemical Waste Management agreed to pay more than $6 million in damages to 5,000 people who lived within five miles of the facility.

The facility was fourth in Ohio for chemical releases during normal operations in 2003, the most recent year for records available under the U.S. EPA's Toxic Release Inventory.

Records show that the site released 12.6 million pounds of chemicals that year, trailing only the BP chemical plant in Lima - which also injects waste underground - and two of Ohio's largest coal-fired power plants.

Blade staff writers Meghan Gilbert, Mike Sigov, and Mark Zaborney contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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