A toxic cloud of hydrochloric acid pouring into the sky above an industrial area of Salt Lake City prompted a five-alarm fire call Tuesday night.
Firefighters ordered a 16-block area surrounding the Great Western Chemical company at 1773 S. 300 West evacuated after company employees reported a 5,000-gallon tanker containing hydrochloric acid had sprung a leak shortly after 9 p.m.About 500 gallons of liquid that was from 31 percent to 35 percent hydrochloric acid spilled onto the ground around the tanker, which a Great Western Chemical employee had pressurized so the acid could be transferred to other containers, said Jerry Nordyke, Great Western Chemical's regional manager.
The tanker's rubber lining, installed six months earlier, apparently had failed and allowed the corrosive chemical to eat a hole in the tanker's side, Nordyke said. The spilled acid reacted with the puddles left by rain that fell earlier in the evening, forming the vapor cloud that floated south and west of the site.
Employees quickly stuffed the hole in the tanker with a wooden plug and then called 911 to alert authorities, Nordyke said.
Salt Lake firefighters received assistance from city police, West Valley City firefighters, South Salt Lake police and fire and the Utah Highway Patrol. Hospitals were put on alert, and the Emergency Broadcast System was activated, said Salt Lake City Fire Capt. Dan Andrus, who classified the incident as a civil emergency.
Police officers moved into the area bounded by 1700 South, 2100 South, 700 West and 1100 West to evacuate any residences or businesses threatened by the chemical spill. Ambulances stood by, and UTA buses were available for temporary shelter. No one was injured, and police reportedly found few people to alert other than the customers and employees at the nearby Flying J truck stop.
The restaurant was full when the evacuation order came, said Mike Smith, a Flying J security guard. "As far as I know, everybody just paid their tickets and left."
Three youths who drove to the command center, set up at 1700 South and 700 West, said they lived near the area and were somewhat unnerved when told of the chemical spill. They had been told to leave their homes during the Thatcher Chemical spill last November that prompted the evacuation of 13,000 people from a 120-block area.
Tuesday night's spill turned out to be not as serious but could have worsened if crews had not been able to empty the leaking tank before the acid managed to eat through the temporary plug, said Salt Lake Fire Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl.
Great Western Chemical employees apparently contacted emergency personnel about the leak about 9 p.m. The temporary plug was put in the tanker about an hour later.
Tony Roberts, a hazardous materials specialist with Salt Lake Fire, said crews pumped the contents of the tank into another container and put soda ash onto the acid that had spilled onto the ground. Once the ash stabilized the chemical, it could be washed down the storm sewers, he said.
Roberts said the chemical cloud posed a danger only if people were exposed to it over a period of time, but added that hydrochloric acid, which may be fatal if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, is dangerous.
Residents and business workers were allowed to return to the area about 11:30 p.m. No injuries were reported.
Andrus said emergency personnel were much more prepared for Tuesday's leak than they were during November's Thatcher Chemical spill. In November, firefighters weren't sure what kind of situation they were getting into and one crew ended up driving directly into the toxic cloud.
Tuesday, the company called and explained exactly what and where the chemical was. Fire officials were able to use that information and gather other information to formalize a plan as they were pulling out of the fire stations.
- Staff writer Amy Donaldson also contributed to this report.