Sunday, January 09, 2000

Chemical spill could have been worse

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The director of the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Materials Unit said Saturday's chemical tank rupture could have been much worse, given some of the dangerous materials stored along the Ohio River.

        It could have been flammable hydrocarbons, such as gasoline and oil.

        It could have been a gas, such as hydrogen chloride or hydrogen bromide, that turns to acid when dissolved in water.

        Or it could have been a vola tile chemical used in manufacturing.

        But it was liquid nitrogen, which dissipates almost as soon as it hits the atmosphere.

        “That's not even classified as a hazardous material,” said Bud Zorb, one of the region's top hazardous materials officials.

        Assistant Cincinnati Fire Chief Gary Auffart said the solution was only about 35 percent liquid nitrogen and 65 percent water: A fertilizer solution not much different than the kind sprayed on yards.

        That made it even less dangerous than pure liquid nitrogen, which is stored at about -300 degrees and expands to about 400 times its volume once it is exposed to air, Mr. Zorb said. While some spilled into the river and might have turned into “little chunks,” he said, most would have evaporated.

        “I'd be more concerned with why it blew,” Mr. Zorb said. “There are so many relief valves and safety systems.”

        He said liquid nitrogen is used as a fertilizer, an aerosol propellent, or a packaging material that gives potato-chip bags that balloon-like feel.

        At Southside River Rail, where the tank ruptured, it was stored for transportation and eventual use for fertilizer, company officials said.

        Within hours of the thunderous rupture, which decimated a storage tank and ripped a barge from its moorings, sending it downriver, emergency crews were preparing to clean up the site.

        But other riverfront chemical incidents have not been so quickly dispelled.

        In 1996, an explosion in a nearly empty chemical tank forced a traffic shutdown and evacuation of homes and businesses in Riverside for a half-mile along the Ohio River.

        The blast punched four large holes in the top of a 300,000-gallon chemical tank about 100 feet from the river at the Ashland Petroleum plant. It happened while workers were pumping toluene — a colorless, flammable liquid found in gasoline and used as a solvent in adhesives, paints and other products — from a rail car into the empty tank.

        In 1994, an explosion at the same plant involving a tanker truck killed one person.


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