Chem Plant Suffers 2 Leaks in 2 Days

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 @ 11:11 AM gHale

Safety plans ended up put to a test at the Stepan Company chemical plant in Elwood, IL, after two leaks of sulfur trioxide in two different days, officials said.

On Thursday a cloud of chemicals released from a railroad tanker. On Friday, a vapor leak of sulfur trioxide lasted for more than 13 hours at the plant before officials stopped it.

About 1 a.m. Thursday, employees had just started offloading a rail car when a pressure relief valve malfunctioned, said Will County sheriff’s spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer. A small vapor cloud of sulfur trioxide sprayed into the air within the facility, which is along the Des Plaines River, just off Millsdale Road and northeast of Interstate 55.

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Elwood and 12 other fire departments assisted Stepan employees for a hazardous material alarm call.

“An additional small release was experienced while the rail car was being locked down,” Hoffmeyer said.

Stepan spokeswoman Kim Kumiega said no employees suffered injuries from the gaseous release, but all employees had to take shelter until officials could contain it.

Hoffmeyer said sheriff’s deputies also evacuated truck drivers waiting to make deliveries at the south gate.

Access roads closed until officials contained the gas and personnel ended up diverted to staging areas, according to Hoffmeyer. Kumiega said plant operations returned to normal by 10 a.m.

“There was no impact to the community,” Kumiega said. “We will be conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the release.”

Sulfur trioxide sees use in the manufacturing of sulfuric acid and is a toxic chemical, according to Stepan documents. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said sulfuric gases in the atmosphere can contribute to acid rain.

“It’s definitely a material you don’t want to encounter if you don’t need to,” said Harold Damron, director of the Will County Emergency Management Agency.

Damron said there were no off-site complaints about the leak. Stepan kept the situation under control, he said.

“We had a few people on the scene throughout the night,” Damron said. “We were satisfied there wasn’t any off-site impact. They were using a water stream to knock the vapors down at the site.”

Several fire departments ended up called to the scene as a cautionary measure in case there was contamination or any impact on employees, Damron said. But the leak ended up knocked down by Stepan emergency crews.

Second Leak
In the Friday incident, a sulfur trioxide vapor leak lasted for more than 13 hours.

Stepan reported that the leak, which started at about 4 a.m., stopped at 5:30 p.m.

In both cases, company officials and local authorities said they were confident the contamination remained on-site without any hazard to the surround community.

“This incident is similar to yesterday,” Damron said.

Air monitors were set up outside of the plant Friday to check for possible impact, Damron said. He said the Elwood Fire Department and a multi-department hazardous materials team also were on site for independent confirmation of what was happening at the Stepan plant.

Both leaks occurred at rail cars, but they were separate rail cars, Kumiega said. Work crews were going to come in Saturday to conduct repairs, she said.

Crews used a fog stream to convert the leaked vapor into liquid and knock it to the ground where it could be contained on site, Damron said.

Although the leak lasted more than 13 hours Friday, it was small enough that it did not pose a hazard to the surrounding area, Damron said.

“I would compare it to a trickle from a water pipe rather than a pipe being broken,” Damron said. “It’s not occurring in any concentration that would be dangerous.”

One advantage in the containment efforts, Damron said, was you could use water to manage sulfur trioxide vapors.

“Being able to knock it down with the water fog is a big thing,” he said. “They still have to clean up the water. But that they can do right at the containment area. They don’t have to worry about it getting airborne.”

Sulfur trioxide is an ingredient used in manufacturing laundry detergent.

Stepan said the company had “engaged experts to help determine the cause.” The investigation into what caused the leaks was going to continue Saturday, Kumiega said.

Stepan also said the plant “will not return to normal operations until we are certain that the leak is stopped and have been assured by our experts and local authorities that the issue has been resolved.”

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