Preparation Pays Off At Thionyl Chloride Emergency

Seasoned responders are usually on the lookout for Murphy's Law at emergencies. What can go wrong quite often does go wrong and that is why we are called for help. But old Murphy took a day off at a hazardous material incident in northeastern Wisconsin...


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Businesses and homes within 150 feet of the incident were evacuated by police and firefighters. Other people in buildings within 500 feet were protected in places with all windows and vents closed. This minimized needless chemical vapor exposures.

To further control the site and to minimize property exposure, the incident commander decided to remove the train engines from the site. He ordered the engineer to move the remaining engines very slowly from the intersection. It was feared the drums might rupture if the rumble of the engines was too harsh. Luckily, the movement was minimal and no product was released.

Emergency Response

The chemical involved in the incident was known from the start. The driver identified the chemical for dispatchers over the telephone; the dispatchers in turn spelled the chemical name and had it verified by the driver. Soon after the driver's call, the dispatchers called Marinette Emergency Government Director Charles Minerman and repeated the process.

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Photo by Val Ihde
Employees of the cleanup contractor work in Level A suits and air lines while loading undamaged drums to be delivered to the chemical company.

These stainless steel drums were being transported to a nearby chemical company. On learning of the mishap, personnel from the company, SpecialtyChem Products Corp., responded with thionyl chloride Material Safety Data Sheets.

The Marinette Fire Department and its hazmat team also responded. This response team is a designated county unit composed of 21 hazmat technicians; 17 of them are also trained to the specialist level. The hazmat personnel inspected the site and found no visible leaks. Local ambulances stood by for assistance, and Superior Environmental Services (SES) arrived began the cleanup. SES personnel used Level A protection to check and upright the 750-pound drums. Two drums that were badly damaged were overpacked. All drums were delivered to SpecialtyChem.

The truck driver was cited for failure to stop at a railroad crossing. He apparently was concerned with finding the road to use to complete his delivery and was not aware of the rail crossing's activated red lights.

Textbook Case

The lessons learned were many. "It was a textbook example of preparation and teamwork," Minerman said. He complimented the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Government and the State Emergency Response Board for helping to equip and train the local responders. Other training came from Hazardous Material Transportation Act grant money.

Among other lessons learned:

  • Having an active Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) leads to community and facility involvement, an invaluable resource in an emergency. SpecialtyChem is active in its LEPC and was involved from the start of the incident, providing chemical engineering and safety advice. It also hosts an annual plant tour for responders and planners.
  • A community Level B team is critical in areas such as Marinette with their transportation exposure. It was able to respond within minutes as opposed to the one to two hours it would have taken for a regional team to arrive.
  • Training grants played a large part in the success of this operation. All hazmat technicians and specialists involved had received refresher training within the prior three months.
  • No plan is any better than its most recent exercise. Mari-nette County had practiced a transportation accident scenario just two months prior to the real event.
  • The incident command system provided the framework for a safe and successful outcome.

The bottom line was no responders were injured and all personnel responded well in respect to their training and equipment limitations. Beating old Murphy is never easy but can be accomplished with plenty of preparation.

The author would like to credit Marinette Eagle Herald writers Penny Mullins and Christena T. O'Brien, Marinette Emergency Government Director Charles Minerman and photographer Val Ihde for their help with this article. Other assistance comes from "Marinette Dodges the Bullet," DEG Digest, Vol. 5, No. 1.