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Misplaced chemical kicks up toxic fumes / April 09, 2014
The accidental mixing of two potent chemicals Wednesday at the Roanoke River Service Authority water treatment plant near Bracey sent 11 people to the hospital, with at least one person, an RRSA employee, held overnight for observation.

The incident took place around 8:30 in the morning, when a delivery driver pulled up at the U.S. Route 1 treatment plant and mistakenly poured a wrong chemical into a tank. The ensuing toxic reaction between the undiluted chemicals “produced a toxic gas that was released inside the water treatment plant,” said Jeff Hinkle, RRSA executive director.

The fumes — which one onlooker said formed a green cloud at the site — sent 11 people to Community Memorial Heathcenter in South Hill for treatment. Transported were two RRSA employees, seven firefighters, one emergency services worker and the delivery truck driver.

Most of those exposed to the fumes were taken to the hospital for precautionary reasons, and were quickly released. The RRSA employee who was kept overnight for observation returned home Thursday, said Hinkle.

He said the accident did not pose a threat to drinking water supplies, which remain safe. The RRSA provides tap water for four of the county’s five towns as well as for residents and businesses in Mecklenburg and Brunswick.

“There was no spill and at no time was the drinking water in jeopardy,” Hinkle said. “The vapors quickly dispersed into the air outside the building.”

The emergency was touched off when an employee of Water Guard, Inc. out of Wilson, N.C. poured sodium hypochlorite into a tank containing hydrofluosilicic acid. While both chemicals are mixed into water supplies — one to purify and the other to add fluoride — Hinkle said the combination of the two chemicals in their undiluted form caused the spread of fumes.

As soon as water plant operators realized what had happened, they evacuated the premises and called their supervisor who, in turn, instructed them to call 911.

Workers remained outside the building for the balance of the workday, until a HazMat team from Danville gave the all-clear deeming the site safe for workers to return.

Employees returned to the building around 6:22 p.m. and water production started soon thereafter.

Danville HazMat, which has specialized equipment for such emergencies, serves as the lead team for Southside Virginia and was called to the site by Mecklenburg County Emergency Management Coordinator, Jon Taylor.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door in the area, informing residents about the situation.

Taylor said the South Hill Volunteer Fire Department, Southside Rescue Squad and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office were the first responders to arrive at the scene. They were joined by HazMat, EMS, and fire units from Boydton, Buckhorn, Chase City, La Crosse, Lake Gaston, Life Star Ambulance, and Palmer Springs, as well as Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

In addition to regular testing manually conducted by RRSA prior to water being released for consumption, Hinkle said, “for the next two or three days additional testing of water will be done to ensure the safety of our product.” He encouraged water users in the two-county service area “to conserve water for the next few days until all production equipment can be evaluated at the plant.”

Water Guard, Inc. is sending trained personnel to drain and clean the tank before it will be used again for water production, Hinkle said.

Taylor said, to the best of his knowledge, this is the first incident of this type to occur at RRSA. Officials there expressed their hope of a speedy recover for all who were subjected to the fumes, and also thanked the “South Hill Volunteer Fire Department and all other responders for their quick response to the accident.”

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