Tuesday, January 30, 2001
At least 13 injured in chemical mishap
Workers were treated at two area hospitals yesterday after a steel cylinder containing noxious gas burst inside a Falls industrial plant.
By GEORGE MATTAR
[One of 13 people injured when a gas cylinder burst at a chemical plant Tuesday afternoon.
(Photos: Bill Johnson/Courier Times)]
Workers at the plan wore oxygen masks to help protect their lungs from further exposure.
A steel cylinder containing a hazardous chemical inside a Falls industrial plant burst yesterday and sent at least 13 people to two area hospitals.
The incident occurred at 2:54 p.m. in the manufacturing area of Solkatronic Chemicals on Philadelphia Avenue on the border of Falls and Morrisville.
For unknown reasons, a cylinder being weighed in the plant split open, releasing 160 pounds of hydrogen selenide, known as H2Se. The leak occurred in an area where about 20 employees were at work, according to Howard K. Kuritzky, operations manager for Allentown-based Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
The company recently expanded its Morrisville/Falls plant, which now serves as the headquarters for Solkatronic, a subsidiary of Air Products.
The plant is used to manufacture hydrogen selenide for use in production of semi-conductors.
Six area rescue squads were called and transported the injured to St. Mary Medical Center in Middletown and Frankford Hospitals’ Bucks County campus in Falls, said Mike Moretti, chief of the Levittown-Fairless Hills Rescue Squad.
While the hospitals said 14 people were admitted, Solkatronic officials said only 13 people were sent to the hospitals.
A St. Mary official said six were admitted to its facility. Eight were admitted at Frankford, a spokeswoman said.
Moretti described their injuries as not life-threatening, although three were in critical condition. He said the injuries mostly were respiratory related. None of the workers were burned by the chemical, Moretti said. The chemical can cause irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory tract, company officials said.
Frankford spokeswoman Maria Slade said all the patients are males. Three were in critical condition late last night, three in fair condition and two in good condition.
“The two men in good condition were just being kept overnight for observation. All were treated for inhalation of the chemical,’’ Slade said.
One worker sits alone among office furniture brought outside to make the injured comfortable.
The St. Mary Medical Center patients were all in stable condition, said a hospital spokeswoman.
Hydrogen selenide is a gas regulated by the federal Department of Transportation and is flammable, said Jeff R. Hennis, health, safety and environmental manager for Solkatronic.
At press time, it was not known what caused the cylinder to burst. Kuritzky said the plant, which normally operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was closed yesterday while an investigation was being conducted.
Kuritzky said the injured workers were company employees and subcontractors, but wouldn’t identify them.
“We are in the process of making all appropriate notifications to family members and regulatory authorities,’’ Kuritzky said. “We will begin an investigation immediately into what happened.’’
The incident was under control at 3:15 p.m., said Kuritzky, adding that the short duration of the incident did not necessitate evacuation of neighboring homes, even though a row of houses are directly behind the plant, which is located at 351 W. Philadelphia Ave.
The plant’s emergency response team was immediately activated and evacuation of all company personnel began. There are about 130 employees at the facility, Kuritzky said.
A cloud of gas that formed over the ruptured tank quickly dissipated.
There have been at least two severe leaks at the plant in the past 14 years, records show.
In October 1987, a toxic cloud of silicon tetrachloride leaked from two 50-pound containers, forcing the evacuation of 300 Falls and Morrisville residents. A year later, a noxious gas emitted from a cracked drum of diborane sent five people to a hospital for observation.
As with all chemical incidents, an arsenal of fire equipment from the Falls, Capitol View, Union, Fairless Hills, Yardley-Makefield and Trenton responded, said Mike Margerum, assistant Falls fire marshal.
Most, if not all the firefighters turned back, but medical personnel were busy administering oxygen to numerous people outside company headquarters.
Falls Fire Marshal Ed Copper said everything worked well yesterday with getting the injured to the hospitals and containing the release of the gas.
“[Solkatronic is] very cooperative with our office and [follows] all the regulations,’’ said Copper, giving a thumbs-up to yesterday’s quick response and cleanup.
Margerum said Solkatronic is one of the township’s 18 companies handling extremely hazardous chemicals. Plant workers train quarterly with township officials on how to handle situations like the one yesterday.
Reaction from neighbors to the emergency was mixed.
Bob Goughan watched with interest as ambulances filed into the company’s parking lot.
“[Solkatronic officials are] nice people and they try to keep us informed of what they do there,’’ Goughan said.
He said he never thought of the plant, which is across the street from where he builds hot rod cars, as dangerous. Nor does he think he’ll worry about the plant in the future, he said.
“They make some volatile stuff there, but it’s got to made somewhere,’’ he said with a shrug. “At least it’s made somewhere where the conditions are safe.’’
There have been at least two severe leaks at the Solkatronics plant in the past 14 years.
But Morrisville resident Charlie Gallagher, who lives a few blocks from Solkatronic, disagreed with Goughan.
“I’m not happy that Falls and Morrisville keep allowing them to expand. I’m not denying they don’t practice safety. But I don’t feel safe. They’re mixing dangerous stuff down there,’’ he said, explaining that the smell outside his home yesterday was horrible.
The Merck Manual says hydrogen selenide has an odor similar to decaying horseradish.
One of the emergency units responding to the spill was the Trenton Fire Department and its special hazardous material team. Battalion Chief Gregory Gore said neither he nor his team ever got into the plant because the company’s own response team handled the spill.
“We were hanging outside maybe 10 minutes in case they needed us,’’ he said. “They didn’t need us.’’
Staff writers Rick Martinez and Joan Hellyer contributed to this article.
Wednesday, January 17, 2001
Last modified: 30 January 2001