Toxic spills 'scary'


"It's scary and it's not something to be taken lightly."

—Joann Hale

After hazardous spills in both North Carolina and Tennessee forced thousands to evacuate this week, disaster responders said these human-caused disasters are cause for serious concern.

A chemical that produces noxious fumes spilled from storage drums in Charlotte, N.C. Tuesday night, forcing 1,000 nearby residents to evacuate their homes and businesses for almost five hours.

"We're looking at this reaction being caused by literally a bad batch of this chemical," said Rob Brisley, public information officer for the Charlotte Fire Dept. "The shipment went into the warehouse with the potential for reaction -- we just didn't know when."

Brisley said the barrels were from southeast Asia, and that the chemcial they stored -- thiourea dioxide -- created a toxic cloud as it seeped through the warehouse's vent holes in the roof.

"It's a matter of breakdowns, it's a matter of human error, it's a matter of these facilities not being inspected," said Joann Hale who represents the United Church of Christ Disaster-Response Ministries. "The economy is so bad, that companies are cutting back. People think this is a normal occurrence in their neighborhoods because it's happened so many years ... so they accept that because their men and woman are working. If your husband or spouse or companion is working at that place, you're thinking to yourself, 'at least they're working, it's a job.'"

About 8,000 residents near Knoxville, Tenn., were forced from their homes for two days after a 141-car Norfolk Southern train carrying sulfuric acide derailed Sunday morning.

Two locomotives and 22 cars left the tracks -- including a tanker car carrying 10,600 gallons of the acid -- which began leaking noxious fumes. About 20 subdivisions were evacuated.

Hale said chemical disasters have a significant impact on people's sense of security.

"If you're a victim through evacuation, how uncertain everything is," she said. "If you're elderly, you're trying to get to the evacuation area, you have your dog, and what if you can't get there? It's scary and it's not something to be taken lightly."

In North Carolina, residents returned home faster than evacuees in Tennessee. The chemical was a stripping agent used to dye textiles. The toxin released into the air signaled the second chemical release from the American Storage & Warehouse Co. in less than a month.

"It's always a big deal when you?ve got to leave your home and all that," said the Rev. Steven Pifo of the Redeemer Lutheran Church -- located about three miles from the spill site -- in Charlotte. "And of course chemical spills are dangerous, but it was good planning and response on behalf of the fire department and police."

In addition to using a reverse 911-notification system that called residents and businesses within a one-mile radius of the release, about 35 firefighters and police went door-to-door to let people know of the danger.

"I think it went well," Brisley said. "We used a telephone call from a reassuring public offical and the response was excellent."

No one was injured, but 12 people received medical treatment at a local hospital where they were treated for respiratory problems.

About 30 people visited an American Red Cross shelter in a local high school during the evacuation, and the Red Cross provided food, drink and moral support to emergency service workers who responded to the chemical leak, said Stefanie Groot, public affairs officer for the Red Cross's Greater Carolinas Chapter.

The late-August spill in Charlotte began when several drums containing the same chemical fell. Since the chemical is highly reactive to water, fire officials initially thought that spill was caused by that type of reaction.

"Initially, our concern with the August 26 incident was that water from a leaky roof or moisture was a factor causing this chemical reaction," Brisley said. "But there's no water factor."

According to Church World Service, "the faith community often takes special interest in a technological disasters such as the spill of such toxic materials and the affects on the lives of persons directly affected. Special pastoral, spiritual, and psychological needs are present because there is little or nothing survivors can do to clean up, their homes look unchanged, and yet there have been traumas associated with evacuation, warnings of health hazard, economic demands, the public nature of the disaster, and the opportunities for alleviating such events in the future."

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