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Chlorine Spill Could Have Been Catastrophic

By Staff | Nov 2, 2016

NEW MARTINSVILLE – Two West Virginia University professors contend that August’s chlorine spill on Marshall County was very serious and could have been a lot worse.

Federal investigators discovered corrosion and pre-existing cracks in a railcar that leaked thousands of gallons of chlorine, which led to hundreds of evacuations in Marshall, Wetzel and Monroe counties on Aug. 27.

“It could have been catastrophic in terms of exposure,” said Patrick McGinley, a WVU professor of law with substantial expertise in environmental law. “It could have killed many people if the rail car had been in a populated area. Those communities dodged a bullet.”

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report recently that provided details about the chlorine gas spill at the Axiall Natrium plant near New Martinsville. Axiall Corp. has since been acquired by Westlake Chemical Corp. for $3.8 billion.

The NTSB was the lead investigator for spill that released 17,000 gallons of chlorine at the company’s Natrium chemical facility in Marshall County.

During the two and half hours after the crack developed, the entire 90-ton load of chlorine released from the crack to form a large vapor cloud that migrated southward and westward from the Axiall facility along the Ohio River Valley. The company said hazmat crews evaluated the railcar and area affected by the leak, which authorities estimated to be approximately 26 miles.

Michael McCawley is interim chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, at West Virginia University. He said when chlorine reacts with water, it becomes a highly toxic hydrochloric acid that burns.

“Chemical burns when it will burn, it feels like a chemical torch,” he said.

Depending on how much contact a person had with the chlorine gas, McCawley said, the moisture from their tear ducts would react with the chemical to make a person’s eyes feel like they were burning and exposure to the lungs makes it hard to breathe. He said chlorine gas was used during World War I, but was later banned for use as a weapon by international treaties.

McCawley said anyone who is exposed to the gas would experience the same effects as soldiers fighting on WWI battlefields when the winds had an effect on exposure.

Someone closer to the spill would be more affected than someone 25 miles away.

“The amount of the effect you’re going to get depends on the amount of movement you’ve got in the air,” he said. “If you’ve got a lot winds, a lot mixing, it will dilute the chlorine faster. If it is a calm day, then it may stay concentrated closer to the source.”

After the release, five Axiall Corp. and three contract employees were treated for exposure injuries and released, while two people were taken to an area hospital.

Depending on how much of the chlorine combined with water, McCawley said, the chlorine cloud was not necessarily 100 percent efficient at changing into hydrochloric acid, so the toxic concentration would vary from place to place. He said though the gas cloud crossed the Ohio River, that doesn’t mean all of the chlorine interacted with the water.

“The further away you get from the source, the lesser concentration the acid dilutes exponentially dropping way faster as it gets further away,” McCawley said.

Talk of banning chlorine is almost the same as getting rid of water because the chemical is found in household goods, metals, plastics and chemical applications, McCawley said.

McGinley said a bipartisan U.S. Congress enacted reforms in December 2015 because of all the problems with tank cars exploding and killing people, damaging property.

“Congress may not have been able to pass much of anything, but Republicans and Democrats were able to agree on this,” he said.

To see a timeline regarding explosions involving trains carrying crude, click this link: www.sightline.org/2015/05/06/oil-train-explosions-a-timeline-in-pictures/

The oil train explosion in Mount Carbon from February 2015 is included in that timeline. According federal investigators, a train was hauling more than 100 tank cars of crude oil when there was a large oil spill that caught fire with several subsequent large, violent fireball eruptions. The spill, fire, and eruptions destroyed one home, forced the evacuation of hundreds of families and caused the temporary shut down of two nearby water treatment plants. Eventually, 19 rail cars caught fire with each car carrying up to 30,000 gallons of oil.

McGinley said because the industry is under-regulated, there could be consequences.

“The number of explosions and releases make it clear that there are extra serious consequences if this isn’t fixed,” he said.

The law was changed because the U.S. Department of Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration sought to modify regulations governing trains hauling crude oil and other flammable materials. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act requires that new tank cars that haul flammable liquids and crude oil be better outfitted and insulated so as to avoid leaks. Older tank cars are to be retrofitted to the new design standard and must be equipped with certain minimum protections. Aging tank cars are to be phased-out faster.

“You need to get a system that works because you can’t have this type of negligence with old tank cars that could lead to a catastrophic event,” McGinley said.

According to the NTSB report regarding the chlorine gas leak in Wetzel County, a tanker car experienced a sudden tank shell crack around 8:26 a.m., shortly after it was filled with liquefied compressed chlorine. Investigators discovered corrosion and pre-existing cracks in the bottom of the railcar’s tank, which had recently undergone interior inspection and repair work. The investigation will continue at NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C.

As a result of the chlorine leak, several lawsuits have been filed in Marshall County Court. McGinley said while some people dismiss regulation and stricter laws, sometimes that is important to save lives.

“Civil lawsuits play an important role in advancing the cause of transportation safety,” McGinley said. “But lawsuits are after the fact to compensate for loss of property and loss of life. The main focus should be on prevention.”