Graniteville, S.C., Mill Officials Fear Equipment Damage from Chlorine Leak
Jan. 11GRANITEVILLE, S.C. Avondale Mills officials are still waiting to do a damage assessment of the seven plants
and related offices shut down by the Norfolk Southern train wreck, but have been warned by chemical experts to expect massive
damage from the corrosive chlorine leak that killed nine people, a company official said Monday.
High concentrations of chlorine, which plumed from a ruptured tank car in Thursday morning's wreck, can chew through the
sheet metal of cars and trucks and eat up the delicate circuit boards of computers and automated equipment, said Stephen
Felker Jr., of Avondale Mills.
Wiring for control panels, phones and electrical systems is also highly vulnerable to the chemical, which forms hydrochloric
acid when it comes in contact with water, he said.
"Without getting in there, we just don't know how bad the damage is," Mr. Felker said.
Until company officials can assess the damage, they can't reopen the seven plants in the Graniteville area, said Mr. Felker,
and as many as 1,700 employees will remain idle, although they still will receive paychecks. He said plans to resume
operations by Wednesday now appear "optimistic," but Avondale Mills has not pushed back this start date.
Privately, company officials fear the worst from a disaster that killed six employees.
The company's data processing center is just yards from the epicenter of the wreck, as is the Stevens Steam Plant. Deadly
chlorine clouds also enveloped administrative offices, in addition to the company's Woodhead Division and Gregg Division
Several years ago, Avondale Mills officials spent between $30 million and $40 million on sophisticated automated equipment
for the Gregg Division plant and recently added $4 million worth, said state Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater. Company
officials fear this and other equipment may be damaged by the chlorine fumes.
Metal can be attacked in two corrosive ways by chlorine gas, said Dr. Vincent Van Brunt, a professor of chemical engineering
at the University of South Carolina. One involves the chemical combining with water to form hydrochloric acid, he said. The
other is a more direct assault on metal from high concentrations of both chlorine gas and liquid spraying from the tanker.
Graphic evidence of the latter attack is provided by corroded fire equipment in the destroyed headquarters station of the
Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Volunteer Fire Department. Chief Phil Napier said the metal portions of the building have
been destroyed, along with a fire engine, an air compressor and several rescue trucks. All have turned a chlorine green, he
Evacuees who fled homes just yards from the wreck site point to vehicle interiors that reek of chlorine. And Avondale Mills
employee Mike Craig, who spent two hours on the roof of the Stevens Steam Plant before crawling to safety, said chlorine has
corroded the wiring of his Jeep.
Concentrations of chlorine in the 300-yard-radius "hot zone" around the epicenter of the wreck were high enough to cause such
damage, said Dr. Brooks Metts, the director of the Palmetto Poison Center at the University of South Carolina. Chlorine
levels remained elevated because a ruptured tanker car leaked the chemical until salvage workers patched it Sunday.
But three to four blocks outside of the hot zone, chlorine residues are minimal, said Thom Berry, a spokesman for the South
Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, a sign of how quickly the chemical dissipates. And there are
indications that the corrosive impact of chlorine away from the wreck site may not be as severe. Aiken County school
officials say the computer server at Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, located about a quarter-mile north of the wreck, is
Low concentrations of chlorine will still give off a powerful odor, Dr. Metts said, but they aren't strong enough to cause
more than mild irritation and a bleaching of clothes and other fabrics. That's good news for homeowners inside the one-mile
radius of the evacuation zone.
"Once these buildings are opened up and aired out, the long-term effect is going to be fairly minimal," he said.
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© 2005, The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.