Letter Re: Preparedness for Hazardous Chemical Spills

Dear Sir,
I work as an firefighter/EMT and Hazardous Materials Tech in the Greater Louisville, Kentucky region. I would like to provide your readership with two examples of ‘stabilized’ emergencies going wrong in the last year in the Louisville area alone. Both could have been catastrophic had it not been for quick thinking and pure dumb luck.

The first incident began in late October of last year when 11 cars of a 57-car Paducah and Louisville line (a CSX owned company) derailed in the southwest corner of Jefferson County, very near Fort Knox. The cars that derailed were carrying Butadiene and Hydrogen Fluoride. Understand that Hydrogen Fluoride is a very powerful asphyxiant and as an added bonus is heavier than air so it doesn’t easily disperse into the atmosphere. The incident was stabilized and just about to leave the front of the news when three days later, workers ignited fumes from the Butadiene car and caused an explosion. Three severely burned forms walked themselves up to the street and and were transported to hospital. Intense flames were feet from the Hydrogen Fluoride car although not quite impinging. Just as the city was getting used to the main highway in the area being shut down and ready to concentrate on other news an entire small city had to be evacuated!

The next incident was less severe, but also nerve racking for the surrounding population. A hydrochloric acid leak at a Dow Chemical plant in ‘Rubbertown,’ a part of Louisville, caused a one mile shelter in place order to be called for. The leak was contained to a ‘drainage pool’ (a purpose built concrete lined pool designed to catch chemical leaks. Just as this was winding down, the pool was found to have a crack in it and Haz Mat teams needed to be called out again.

The take-a-way is like this: Know what is going on in your area. What is commonly transported down the railway that runs a mile from your property and be ready to take action even if the situation seems to be mitigated. Even when the authority involved says ‘all clear’ remain cautious. I encourage all concerned to map the railways, chemical plants, and pipelines in your area. Also be aware of light industrial parks where highly dangerous activities occur on a regular basis. Just because they say light industry doesn’t mean they’re making teddy bears in there. – Sam H.