Chemical company stages drill to prepare for 'real emergency' Practice run simulates leak of toxic fumes in South Baltimore

August 28, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Three Grace Davison workers, overcome by toxic fumes, collapsed on the hot pavement. On nearby Curtis Creek, fishermen slumped over their boats as the Fire Department rushed to the rescue. A warning went out to the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Fairfield, as the wind pushed fumes in their direction.

Not to worry, authorities said. It was only a drill -- a large production staged yesterday morning from the Curtis Bay plant of Grace Davison.

South Baltimore is the center of the petrochemical industry in Maryland, and a coalition of companies has been running large drills as often as once a year since the group formed the South Baltimore Industrial Mutual Aid Plan in 1982.

In addition to 45 Fire Department employees and hundreds of chemical workers, representatives from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, state and federal environmental officials and the Coast Guard participated.

"This drill is a learning experience," said Brian Martin, manager of Grace's Curtis Bay plant. "We expect things to go wrong, but we'll find the problems, critique ourselves and be ready in a real emergency."

Yesterday's drill started with a Grace employee pretending to break a tank line and release clouds of anhydrous ammonia -- represented by clouds of smoke -- into the air. The ammonia is the most toxic chemical used at the plant, which makes chemical catalysts used to refine fuels, manufacture plastics and control auto emissions.

"A leak or anything can always happen," said Grace engineer Axel P. Schwendt as the drama played out. "We are careful, and there are constant inspections, but equipment can always fail, and ammonia could escape in loading or unloading the tanks."

Fire Department personnel arrived to rescue the employees and dissolve the "ammonia cloud" with blasts of a water spray.

The only real injury in the drill was to a firefighter, who collapsed because of the heat and weight of his chemical protective suit.

Authorities recommend that in a chemical spill or release, rTC residents should stay inside, close up their houses and turn off the air conditioning.

Richard McKoy, director of emergency management for the city, said officials have been called to Grace and other companies for minor spills, but that a large response such as that rehearsed yesterday has never been necessary.

Community leaders, who joined government officials in observing the drill, have praised the chemical companies for a documented decline in air and water emissions. Several neighborhood groups have worked closely with Martin and other executives on a community advisory panel.

"They are absolutely incredible," says Erica Wexler, a third-grade teacher at Farring Elementary School in Brooklyn and a member of the advisory panel. "I've found the chemical industry in South Baltimore to be very open."

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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