Safety System in Play in Chem Plant Blast

Wednesday, July 3, 2013 @ 12:07 PM gHale


An explosion and fire caused damage and a chemical leak at the Voltaix plant in Upper Mount Bethel Township, PA, late Thursday.

The fire started just after 10 p.m. in a 10,000-gallon tank, but they were able to contain it to the tank and it did not cause any injuries or force the evacuation of the surrounding area, said Voltaix Chief Executive Pete Smith.

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Voltaix employees fought the flames with water until Mount Bethel firefighters arrived. The fire was out by 12:45 a.m., and fire crews were able to leave by 3:45 a.m., according to emergency officials

“The control room where the employees work is 50 to 75 yards from the tank, and all the safety systems worked,” Smith said. “We think we can be open again next week, but we’re going to make sure we have a full understanding of what happened before we do that.”

Voltaix makes specialty chemicals for semiconductor and solar-cell manufacturers. Smith said the fire started after less than 1,000 gallons of excess solvent used to make those chemicals went into a 10,000 storage tank.

The tank, fully automated and controlled by employees working in a building nearly 200 feet away, should be airtight. But Smith said air somehow got into the tank while the plant was using a new process to store the solvants.

That caused an explosion and dislodged the lid of the tank, causing a fire. Employees doused the flames and cooled the tank with water until Mount Bethel Volunteer Fire Co. firefighters arrived to extinguish the fire with foam.

Dozens of firefighters and ambulance workers from several companies responded. Initially, they worried that chemicals leaking during the fire could be a hazard to the community. Just before midnight, Northampton County Emergency Management Services said area residents were safe, but urged them to follow local news reports for up-to-date information on the Voltaix fire. Ultimately, no evacuations were necessary.

“The water and foam put the fire out sooner,” Smith said. “But the system is designed so that, even without help, the fire would have eventually burned itself out inside the tank.”

Smith said the damage remained contained to the tank. Because it’s the only excess solvent tank at the plant, it will have to undergo repair before the plant can reopen.

With corporate offices in Branchburg, New Jersey, Voltaix opened its Upper Mount Bethel plant last year and employs about 20 people, Smith said.



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