Sunday, January 09, 2000

Ruptured tank leaks chemical into river

Spill non-toxic, but adjacent tank imperiled

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Trucks teeter on the edge of the Ohio River after a tank of liquid nitrogen ruptured in Riverside.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        About 365,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen — a farm fertilizer — spilled from a ruptured tank in Riverside on Saturday afternoon, with much of the non-toxic liquid spilling into the Ohio River.

        Saturday night, firefighters said clean-up of the spill was halted as investigators checked damage to a nearby tank that did not rupture, but which held about 1 million gallons of naphtha, a petroleum distillate that can be highly flammable.

        They said a cause for the “catastrophic tank failure” couldn't be determined, because investigators can't get close to the site until the naphtha tank and two others are off-loaded and liquid nitrogen that spilled onto the ground around the tanks is cleaned up sometime today.

        “We can't get in and look around,” Assistant Cincinnati Fire Chief Gary Auffart said late Saturday. “The real issue is getting the product off-loaded. A barge is on its way here now.”

        Residents near the Southside River Rail terminal on River Road at Idaho Street heard what sounded like an explosion about 1 p.m. that shook nearby houses and sent a gusher of liquid nitrogen shooting into the air.

        Jeff Farnsley was in his house directly across River Road when he heard an explosion and felt the house shake momentarily, “just like an earthquake.”

        “I was inside, but my mom was outside and she saw something shoot up in the air,” Mr. Farnsley said. “It was a pretty nasty jolt. It got my attention.”

        Despite the reports of an explosion, Mr. Auffart said, the noise probably came from a blown power transformer. He said that when the tank ruptured, it brought down power lines and took out a transformer. That might have sounded like a blast, he said.

        “There's no evidence of an explosion,” he said.

        Firefighters said the the rupture of the tank let loose a wave of liquid, which pushed two trucks into the river, breaking the cord that had moored a barge near Southside River Rail. The barge floated down the Ohio River about a mile before it was hauled in by the U.S. Coast Guard at the guard's River Road station.

        No one was injured in the incident, and police and fire officials did not have to evacuate the area.

        Mr. Auffart said investigators with the Environmental Protection Agency are looking into the history of the tank, which he said was about eight years old. He said they will examine the storage permits and inspection records.

        Mr Auffart said the fire department does not monitor tanks as part of fire inspections.

        Liquid nitrogen is not classified as a hazardous material and poses no danger, said Bud Zorb of the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Materials Unit.

        Only about 35 percent of the tank was liquid nitrogen, the rest was water, Mr. Auffart said.

        “It was an aqueous solution,” he said. “It's basically not much different than the stuff that trucks spray on your lawn. ... except for a slight odor, you wouldn't even notice it.”

        “Fortunately, there was no one around when it happened and there was no hazardous-materials threat,” said Jody Mangeot, vice president of Southside River Rail and the adjacent Lindsey Motor Express.

        If the tank rupture had taken place on a weekday, she said, “there would be workers all over the area. We're fortunate it happened when no one was around.”

        Mrs. Mangeot said Southside River Rail is a company that stores materials for other companies that are transported from Riverside by barge and by truck.

        “So far, we have no idea what happened,” Mrs. Mangeot said. “We've been here 35 years and nothing like this has ever happened.”

        Mrs. Mangeot said there were 365,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen in the tank, which amounts to about 2.5 million pounds, but Saturday evening officials were not sure how much of it had reached the river.

        A half dozen Cincinnati Fire Division trucks responded to the tank rupture, along with a team trained in dealing with hazardous materials spills. At first, Cincinnati fire officials were not sure what kind of materials were stored in the ruptured tank, but when it became clear the spill did not involve toxic chemicals, most of the firefighters had left the scene by mid-afternoon.

        Shortly before 4 p.m., a boat and truck with river clean-up materials from Clean Harbors Environmental Services rolled onto the Southside Rail Service property to begin working to clean up the spill.

        Saturday night, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Kroeger said firefighters brought in an engineering survey team to make sure the damaged tank with the naphtha was structurally safe. Fire division investigators remained on the scene, trying to determine the cause of the rupture, which firefighters described as a “collapse.”


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