workers safety and health 

Atofina Chemical Explosion

      Three workers died July 14th when methyl mercaptan leaking from a rail car burst into flames. The explosion at Atofina Chemicals in Riverview sent a toxic cloud across Riverview, Trenton, Grosse Ile, Amherstberg, Ontario, and the Detroit River and caused the evacuation of thousands of residents. The railcar contained 25,000 gallons of the toxic chemical before the incident, all of which was released into the environment.

      Exposure to methyl mercaptan killed three Atofina workers – Edwin Wrebleski, Kenneth Cox and Terry Stein – who belonged to PACE. Nine of the fifteen workers on site at the time were injured. The plant, built in 1898, employs about two hundred people.

      At 3:30 am on July 14th a connecting pipe separated from a faulty valve on the rail car as two workers unloaded methyl mercaptan. Eleven minutes later an emergency 911 call was made to Riverview police reporting two men down, one missing, and a bad chemical leak. While reports are consistent in placing the incident at this time, residents of the northern end of Grosse Ile have reported foul chemical odors three hours earlier.

      Riverview police and fire departments were on the scene by 4 am. Soon methyl mercaptan was burning under the railroad car, within minutes “it almost self-extinguished, and then there was a violent eruption” reports Riverview Fire Chief Robert Hale. A 50 foot wide fireball shot 200 feet into the sky. Chlorine began to vent from the tank car due to the heat adding to the vapor cloud crossing the Detroit River.

      Grosse Ile Fire Chief Duncan Murdock saw a mist cloud crossing that the north end of the island around 5 am. Grosse Ile has two bridges to the mainland, a decision was made to inform residents systematically by telephone to prevent a massive evacuation with only the southern bridge open to traffic. By 6:30 am the US Coast Guard had closed the Detroit River to boat traffic. It wasn’t until 7:30 that the Canadian Coast Guard was informed.

      About 8 am the EPA was informed of the incident. Air monitoring by the EPA began about 1 pm. EPA emergency coordinator Ralph Dollhopf said, “By that time the exposures had already occurred.”

      Over 2000 residents were evacuated from their homes. Most Riverview firefighters stayed on the scene until 1:30 am on the 15th. One firefighting unit stayed for three more days. 

      Safety investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have focused on an apparently faulty 1-inch steel pipe fitting that is part of the equipment used to unload the tank cars. It could be months before the results of the NTSB investigation and the Michigan OSHA investigation are publicly known.

      Friends of the Detroit River, a local environmental group, reports that 1,000 gallons of chlorine was also released, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. Two additional chemicals, sodium hypoclorite and TefZel (a Dupont product) appear to have been involved in the explosion. Riverview Fire Chief Robert Hale is reported in the FOIAed documents as citing unnamed fire investigators who believe the TefZel reacted with the methyl mercaptan producing heat which caused the ignition. Other documents suggest the sodium hypoclorite as a likely agent causing the flash fire and subsequent ignition.

      Three rail cars of chlorine and a second one filled with methyl mercaptan were near the site of the disaster. Had these been involved in the incident the results would have been immensely tragic.

Emergency Evacuation Found Lacking

      Residents have complained that evacuation procedures were inadequate. Many living on the north end of Grosse Ile have complained that the evacuation took too long. Riverview Fire Chief Hale told the News-Herald that Riverview is examining it’s emergency procedures and hopes to make improvements. “A lot of area fire chiefs are hot to trot on this right now, and I’m one of them,” he said.

      Ontario emergency officials also have complained that they were not informed of the incident in a timely way. The toxic chemical cloud was causing symptoms hours before Amhertsberg officials were notified of the cause. Amhertsburg Fire Chief and emergency coordinator Richard Murray told the News-Herald he wants a protocol so officials on both sides of the river will inform each other of chemical releases. “Our biggest concern was to set up some kind of notification procedure. We’re definitely working on that.”

      Amhertsburg has several chemical plants including plants that manufacture hydrochloric acid and sodium chlorate. The town has a siren alert system with public address ability but the Atofina release has prompted Murray to look for better methods to inform citizens. Riverview, Grosse Ile and Trenton do not have sirens.

      At 5pm on the 15th about 300 Atofina workers and family members assembled to mourn the deaths of their compatriots.  

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