Truck's toxic chemical spills onto road Driver realizes problem, leaves interstate for help

heat, danger slow cleanup

August 27, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Jamal Watson contributed to this article.

A hazardous material spilled onto Route 27 in Mount Airy yesterday, closing the highway and ramps to Interstate 70, while crews from four counties battled intense heat and noxious fumes for nearly six hours.

A gas station became the staging area about 8: 30 a.m. for more than 60 firefighters and 15 state police officers working to clean up phenol resin, a toxic byproduct of formaldehyde, a carcinogen.

The chemical had leaked from a freight truck en route to Jessup from West Virginia. No one was injured, but several cases of heat exhaustion were reported.

"We focused on the toxic and corrosive aspects of the chemical, containing it as much as possible, so there were no more vapors," said John Wisner, operations officer for Montgomery County's crew. "Initially, there was a noticeable smell."

Because phenol resin is heat-sensitive and highly flammable, fire was a constant worry, forcing workers to act quickly in temperatures near 100 degrees, Wisner said.

Police notified businesses and homeowners near the busy interchange. They tried to evacuate shopping centers but soon called for closed windows and doors.

The spill seeped from a pencil-sized hole in one of five 55-gallon drums -- which in all contained almost 3,000 pounds of the resin -- on the rear trailer of the truck. A second trailer held a smaller load of a nontoxic material.

Response teams, wearing protective gear and oxygen tanks, forced the damaged drum into a slightly larger container. They wore three layers of gloves and heavy boots.

"I hate to think of those guys putting on those heavy suits," said Howard Beaubien, manager of Four Corners Exxon. "I am sweating just standing still."

Each rescue worker carried enough oxygen to stay on the truck for an hour, but because of the heat, supervisors rotated four-member crews every 30 minutes. A second team waited outside the truck should a replacement be necessary.

Crews soon determined that only one of the five drums was leaking. It took about 90 minutes -- staggered on shifts throughout the morning -- to right the hefty drum, which was tilted but not lying on the truck floor.

"A drum with 55 gallons of liquid is heavy and awkward to move," said Mike Grierson of the Montgomery County Haz-Mat Team.

As workers left the stifling trailer, they congregated under the gas station's canopy and hastily took off their gear. Paramedics checked vital signs and encouraged them to drink fluids. Beaubien passed out more than 100 bottles of soda.

"We've lost a lot of business, but in situations like this, what can you do?" Beaubien said. "You don't want to take any risks."

The truck driver, John A. Evans, who was making an overnight run from Bruceton Mills, W. Va., moved among the men.

"This was an accident, and I had no control over it," Evans said. "I feel sorry for all these people away from their jobs and their families."

Evans, 38, a trucker for 20 years, said he suspected a wooden pallet had broken and caused the barrel to rupture.

He said he had made routine safety checks of the 70-foot rig every two hours during the trip, which he makes five nights a week. At 6 a.m., he found nothing wrong. But two hours later, when he stopped near the Route 27 exit on the interstate, he found liquid on the door of the rear trailer.

"It had probably been leaking for about an hour when I found it," said Evans, a hauler for Old Dominion Freight Line.

He immediately drove off the interstate and stopped on a blacktopped shoulder along Route 27 near the gas station. When he opened the doors, the chemical spilled onto the shoulder.

"There was no way to contain it in the trailer," Evans said. "The smell took my breath away and burned my eyes. I knew better than to get into the truck. I have no idea how much leaked out.

"I closed the doors and got the hell away," he said. "With no protection or breathing apparatus, I was not going to stick around."

Evans went to the gas station and called for help.

Tom Field, an employee at the station, said, "He said that he had a problem and that he had to call somebody. Then all hell broke loose."

Less than five minutes after Evans' call, crews began arriving. A team from Mount Airy, the first on the scene, gave oxygen to Evans, who refused further assistance.

State troopers closed Route 27 and all but one ramp to I-70. Troopers, state highway workers and volunteers directed traffic at key intersections.

Traffic was detoured from Route 27 onto back roads often unfamiliar to many motorists.

Flashing signs denoted road closings, but no alternate routes were marked.

Many drivers stopped passing cars or police to ask for directions.

Any vehicle southbound on Route 27 was forced onto I-70 and sent five miles west to Route 75.

Along Route 144 east into Mount Airy, drivers were rerouted into town subdivisions that had no outlets.

"We picked a bad day to try to go to the library," said Dawn Ramsburg, who drove onto a cul-de-sac after driving a van full of children from Ijamsville.

Once rescue workers contained the spill, A&A Environmental, a cleaning contractor based in Linthicum, removed the material from the trailer floor and the roadway with absorbents.

The Maryland Department of the Environment supervised the operation and escorted the truck to Jessup, where it left most of its load. The escort continued until the enclosed damaged drum was transported to a terminal in North East.

Route 27 reopened about 2:30 p.m.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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