Investigators are seeking blast's cause

Explosion occurred at plant that processes hazardous waste

Morrell Park jolted

Incident occurs month after fire at Laurel Safety-Kleen facility

August 30, 1999|By Tim Craig and Kris Antonelli | Tim Craig and Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Fire investigators are unsure what caused an explosion that tore through a hazardous-materials recovery plant and rocked Southwest Baltimore early yesterday -- the second blast in 30 days at an area facility owned by Safety-Kleen Corp.

Just after midnight, more than 60 Baltimore firefighters responded to the plant at 1438 De Soto Road in a Morrell Park industrial park to battle a stubborn fire that followed the explosion. The blaze quickly went to two alarms and took nearly two hours to control. No injuries were reported, fire officials said.

Firefighters had trouble extinguishing the fire because the explosion disabled the building's sprinkler system and no hydrants were nearby, Lt. Michael Johnston said at the scene early yesterday.

Damage to the plant, which processes hazardous waste, was estimated to be $475,000, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman. The cause was under investigation late yesterday, he said.

The explosion and fire did not cause evacuations from nearby houses, unlike a July 31 incident at the Safety-Kleen facility in Laurel.

In that incident, two trailers at the Anne Arundel County plant caught fire and their cargo -- 55-gallon drums of acids, hydrocarbons and toxins -- exploded into a towering fireball, forcing the evacuation of 90 nearby homes.

An investigation into that fire has been completed, but a cause for the blaze could not be determined, Capt. Frank Stamm, an Anne Arundel fire spokesman, said yesterday.

Because of the large amount of chemicals stored in the Laurel facility, fire investigators have said almost anything could have triggered the blaze, including how the chemicals reacted with the material of the storage containers, oxygen and temperature.

Neighbors concerned

Residents of Morrell Park who live a short distance from the De Soto Road facility were concerned after the explosion yesterday.

"It felt like the house was rocking," said Herman J. Bullinger, who lives in the 1300 block of St. Marks Ave., about 50 yards south of the plant. "I was in World War II and to me it sounded like a 250-pound bomb."

He said he wants better safety procedures at the industrial park.

"I am getting leery about having this industrial park next to me. When I had my house built, there was nothing but a field there," Bullinger said.

Safety-Kleen, a publicly traded company with headquarters in Columbia, S.C., has 175 facilities nationwide.

Thomas M. Hughes, the manager of the De Soto Road facility, defended the company's safety record.

"I've been with the company 23 years, and I've never even seen a small problem," Hughes said. "We just deal with your run-of-the-mill waste."

Johnston said city firefighters regularly inspect industrial waste sites and recent checks at Safety-Kleen showed no problems.

Johnston said residents were lucky the fire did not spread to three storage silos 30 yards from the site of the explosion, where Safety-Kleen stores waste oil, mineral spirits and flammable paint thinner.

"We probably would have had a major catastrophe, if the silos were damaged," Johnston said.

Hughes said no hazardous chemicals or compounds were stored in the plant, but empty storage drums and tanker trucks were at the site.

`No idea what happened'

"I have no idea what happened here," Hughes said early yesterday as he looked at twisted metal that used to be a tanker truck. "If it was one the tanks I could understand, but all I have in there is empty drums."

Hughes, noting the smell of natural gas, speculated that a gas leak was to blame, but Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. officials said no gas leak was reported before the explosion.

Rose Muhlhausen, a BGE spokeswoman, said the utility was called to the plant at 12: 17 a.m. to shut off the gas, but she said the explosion damaged their equipment and started the gas leak.

Yesterday morning, BGE workers checked homes in the neighborhood for gas leaks.

"When they wanted to check our house for gas, it really scared me," said Debbie Chester, who lives with her husband across the street from the Bullingers.

"I am urging [the Bullingers] to get the foundation of their house checked. It shook from the explosion," she said.

Joseph and Deborah Chapman, who live a few houses from the Bullingers, said they heard what they thought was thunder about midnight. "We didn't know what had happened," Joseph Chapman said. "It is kind of nerve-racking, especially since we have our two grandchildren around."

Pub Date: 8/30/99

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