Sulfuric acid cloud sends over 3,200 to hospitals around Richmond, Calif. Tank car leak shuts businesses, cuts travel

July 27, 1993|By San Francisco Chronicle

RICHMOND, Calif. -- A spectacular milky-white cloud of sulfuric acid spewed out of a railroad tank car, forcing more than 3,200 people to seek medical treatment and tens of thousands more to stay in their homes and alter their commutes.

Many businesses had to close yesterday, and Contra Costa County health authorities ordered people in the area to stay inside their houses while the thick mass spread from the leaking railroad tanker in north Richmond at the General Chemical Corp. plant. Winds blew the plume east to El Sobrante and north to the Carquinez Strait.

The cloud corkscrewed at least 1,000 feet into the air and extended about four miles wide at its peak, according to Richmond fire officials and scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Authorities briefly shut down parts of Interstate 80, the bay shipping channel near the Benicia Bridge, Bay Area Rapid Transit's Richmond line and Amtrak train lines while safety workers tried to plug the leak.

"This is the most serious industrial leak [in Contra Costa County] in the 10 years I've been here," said Wendell Brunner, assistant county health director.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District cited General Chemical for creating a public nuisance -- an action that could cost the company fines of up to $25,000. The company also could be subject to more severe penalties from state or federal regulators.

At least five hospitals reported a total of more than 3,200 people streaming in during the crisis with complaints of burning of the eyes and throat, trouble breathing and upset stomachs.

Most were treated and released, said Mr. Brunner, and could suffer minor irritation for a few days. But anyone with serious previous respiratory problems who caught a whiff of the spill might experience "episodes of asthma for weeks or even months."

The accident involved the same model of railroad tanker that was involved in the 1991 pesticide spill that wiped out fish and plant life for 45 miles along the Sacramento River below Dunsmuir, Calif.

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