Fairfield residents want information on chemical plant emergency response Negligence ruled out in FMC Corp. explosion

February 12, 1997|By Peter Hermann and Jamie Stiehm | Peter Hermann and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

State safety inspectors investigating a chemical explosion two months ago in Fairfield found no evidence of negligence, but angry residents have called a meeting tonight at the fire station to complain that they are not adequately protected.

The Fairfield/Wagner's Point Neighborhood Coalition is calling on FMC Corp. and other chemical companies to provide more public information on hazardous materials and for copies of emergency response plans to be made available.

The University of Maryland's environmental law clinic has compiled a report on behalf of the residents saying the 270 people who live in the area are not properly informed by companies and are "dangerously unaware" of what to do in emergencies.

After the Dec. 5 explosion, which injured six people, "Several residents ran to the plant to discover the cause of the accident, an understandable but extremely risky reaction that could have had serious consequences," the report says.

Gene Reynolds, a responsible-care coordinator for FMC, said yesterday that more needs to be done to "inform the folks as to what they should be doing. It's been some time since that information has been offered."

Jeannette Skrzecz, president of the neighborhood coalition, said: "What we hope to accomplish at the meeting is to send a message to the chemical industries that all we want is an emergency response plan. How are we supposed to respond if we don't know what to do?"

The powerful blast blew a fiberglass roof off a company building on the grounds of the 100-acre plant in the 1700 block of Patapsco Ave. Three FMC employees and three subcontractors suffered minor injuries.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health investigated and found the company in compliance and levied no fines.

Cause of blast revealed

The cause of the blast was made public yesterday. State and company officials said a power outage blew out a coolant rod used to cool a vat of Heptane, a toxic petroleum-based chemical used as a fuel additive.

Because of the outage, the Heptane automatically transferred to an overflow tank, which does not have a cover. The fumes from the hot chemical were ignited by flames from a welding torch being used 100 feet away, "where it ignited and traveled back to the tank," causing the explosion.

The University of Maryland report criticizes FMC for not having an emergency generator on the tank to cool the chemicals if power goes out.

Reynolds said that the tube used to transfer the Heptane to the overflow tank would now go through cold water to cool the chemical, and that foam would be spread over the open overflow tank to prevent fumes from escaping.

He denied that the Wagner's Point residents are provided inadequate information about what is stored at the company. "The Fire Department gets a great deal of information, both through regulations and from fairly frequent tours of the facility," he said. "We are required to give the amounts of chemicals, and that is recorded at the Fire Department and is publicly available."

No copies allowed

But in the University of Maryland report, environmental clinic director Rena Steinzor said she was allowed to review, but not copy, FMC's emergency response plan. She said fire officials told her the company told them not to give out the information.

Fire Battalion Chief William Martin said members of the public can review the plan and take notes, but not make copies because of concerns raised by chemical companies who don't want such information disseminated. However, he said the policy is being reviewed by city lawyers.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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