The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Sunday, January 11, 2004

Better system of warning eyed for Honeywell

By Jimmy Nesbitt The Paducah Sun

METROPOLIS, Ill.--Honeywell plant officials have met at least twice with local emergency services leaders since the Dec. 22 toxic gas release and are close to finalizing a list of ways to improve communication at the plant if there is another release.

A direct phone line between the Massac County Sheriff's Department and the plant is one item on the list, which should be completed sometime this week, plant spokesman Mark McPhee said. Routine communication with people who live within a two-mile radius of the plant is another.

McPhee did not want to comment on other changes because he said they have not been finalized.

"I think that there definitely needs to be a lot of coordination between Honeywell and the emergency services," Metropolis Mayor Beth Clanahan said. "We all need to work to make sure there is open communication.

"I think a lot of times we take for granted that the plant is out there, and that's why something like this brings it foremost in your mind — that this can happen, and we're not immune to this type of thing."

Only one resident who lived near the plant showed signs of exposure to low levels of hydrofluoric acid, but if the wind had blown the chemical cloud toward a populated area instead of away from it, many more may have been affected.

The release, estimated at about seven pounds of uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, rose 86 feet high, and light winds pushed the chemicals northwest.

Although UF6 is mildly radioactive, it is mainly a chemical threat because it emits toxic hydrogen fluoride, or HF, when exposed to moisture in the air, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says.

After Honeywell reported the release, Sheriff Bob Griffey said police called the plant several times but never got through. Each time police were sent directly to an automated voice message.

"We didn't even know what the leak was" until 30 to 45 minutes after it happened, 911 Director Keith Davis said. "We didn't know how big an area to evacuate or where to. It would have been nice to know (what the leak was) when the call came in.

"You're working with an extreme handicap when you don't know what the release is."

A county firefighter who worked at the plant and knew what chemicals were produced used a chemical emergency handbook to establish an evacuation area. It was little more than an educated guess, however, considering the firefighter did not know the extent of the leak or the chemical. "They just tried to err on the safe side," Davis said.

Risking their own safety, firefighters and police drove and walked door to door, waking and evacuating residents. The officers knew something was wrong but couldn't say exactly why.

"That's not an exact science," Davis said.

Davis and Griffey said many positive things have come out of the incident. Plant officials have established an open dialogue with emergency services, Davis said. "We all need to be working from the same playbook," he said.

NRC officials held a public meeting Tuesday at the county courthouse, where they presented a report to plant officials and took questions from the crowd. They investigated because the release was the plant's fourth since September. The report concluded that the release "had minimal impact on worker or public health and safety."

The toxic gas escaped the building when an operator working a double shift did not place the dust collection valves and the system valves in the correct position, the report said.

Toward the end of the meeting, a woman questioned the plant's training methods. Plant officials told the crowd that drills for on-site releases were performed annually toward the end of each year. The drill involved local emergency rescue teams and firefighters, they said.

Metropolis firefighter Jason Morris, a 10-year veteran, told plant officials that he had never participated in a drill like the one they described. Clanahan, who also attended the meeting, spoke with Morris afterward.

"I asked (him), ‘Have you ever been to these?’” Clanahan said. "He said no. He said they go out once a year, have lunch, have a little tour, and that is about it."

When contacted by phone, Massac County Fire Chief Mike Childers said he "was really not interested" in making a comment on the department's training history at the plant.

Massac County Emergency Services Director O.D. Troutman said he has participated in emergency drills at the plant each year since 1987, when he became director. Troutman said the drills consisted of "whatever they needed me to do."

Darren Mays, plant safety and regulatory affairs manager, said the last on-site drill was in November 2002. County and city firefighters were called to participate, but some left to respond to a possible fire near the plant before the drill began.

In 2001, the NRC canceled the drill because of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Mays said. Before that, emergency drills for medical, fire and chemical releases had been conducted annually, Mays said. "The NRC comes in and views and critiques us," he said.

Mays said he plans to communicate regularly with residents who live within a two-mile radius of the plant to improve evacuation procedures. And officials from USEC recently visited the plant and offered "ways to help us improve our emergency response," Mays said.

Like Davis, Clanahan just wants to see that everyone knows his role. "There seemed to be so much confusion about who does what," she said. "I think that's really not the issue. The issue is they should all know what they're supposed to do and when they're supposed to do it.

"When you have something like that, that's not a time for confusion."