Chlorine gas leak in W Virginia prompts mass evacuation

FILE PHOTO © Stringer
At least two workers have been hospitalized after a massive leak in a rail tanker car at Axiall chemical plant near Proctor, West Virginia. It forced the evacuation of nearby communities, as a cloud of highly toxic gas headed south and west of the facility.

The car with an unspecified amount of chlorine inside leaked early Saturday, at about 8:40 a.m. local time, Axiall said in a statement. The plant was evacuated and subsequently shut down as hazmat crews were trying to detect and seal the leak, which they managed to do by 1:30 p.m.

The possible area of the leak could be as wide as 26 miles (41km), The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register reported, citing authorities. 

The evacuation orders were issued for seven communities, including Proctor and Kent, parts of New Martinsville and the town of Hannibal, Ohio. Two highways across the river were closed and the traffic on the Ohio River restricted. 

The police in New Martinsville called on the residents to leave the town if they smell the gas at noon.

“If you smell chlorine, then it would be in your best interest to evacuate immediately rather than waiting on emergency services to come to you. We are working as fast as we can to notify everyone,” the statement read.

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The people were allowed to return home after tests conducted by the Marshall County’s Office of Emergency Management did not trace signs of the gas in the area eight hours following the incident. 

“Axiall and the (West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection) tested the air quality in the area and determined it to be safe,” a local dispatcher cited as saying at 4:30 p.m.  

Although no exact data has been released on the amount of the gas in the car, it could contain “approximately 30,000 gallons” of the poisonous substance, according to Kelley Gillenwater from the state Department of Environmental Protection, as quoted by Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

The cause of the incident is so far unknown, as the car was not in the process of transloading, during which leaks in the rail tankers typically occur.

“The leak didn’t occur during transloading. The car was already away from the transloading area and on a nearby rail siding [spur] when the release occurred,” Gillenwater said.

A company’s employee and a contract worker had to be admitted to the hospital as result of the incident, while another five workers received an on-site help. On Saturday evening, both workers were released upon undergoing treatment in the medical facility.

This is not the first time the life-threatening accidents take place at the Axiall plant. In December, 11 workers received second-degree burns and injuries linked to the inhalation of dust as the coal-fired boiler released a steam. 

The plant, which is located along the Ohio River, manufactures hazardous chlorine and caustic soda, another very strong chemical, and is operated by Eagle Natrium, an Axiall subsidiary company.   

It also repeatedly came under strong criticism of environmental organizations for alleged mercury pollution. 

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