Chemical spill closes Nottoway

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2007

FRANKLIN—The Nottoway River in Southampton County remained closed Tuesday following a 2,200-gallon chemical spill at Hercules Inc. on Monday.

Two different chemicals were released into the river Monday morning, prompting a response by local and state emergency teams, as well as a private clean-up operation.

Public access to the river was closed, and residents have been advised not to swim, wade or fish in the river and not to consume fish caught there until further notice.

Detective Cpl. Richard Morris, spokesman for the Southampton Sheriff’s Department, which heads up the local emergency response team, said the closure was &uot;a precautionary measure only.&uot;

Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said Tuesday that agents from his office were working to determine the environmental impact of the chemical release.

Officials from VDEQ were on hand both Monday and Tuesday to monitor the company’s response to the emergency and to begin to assess the damage.

Hayden said local authorities had made the decision to close the river, and they would be in charge of choosing when to re-open it. The state agency would, however, provide information that would be helpful in making that decision, he said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the VDEQ had completed its initial assessment, finding

there was no evidence of widespread environmental damage.

Hayden and Hercules officials said small fish within a canal that feeds into the river from the chemical plant were killed by the initial spill. But Roy Hart of Hercules said fish had begun to move back into the canal by Tuesday afternoon.

Hart, the safety, health and environmental manager for the plant, said company officials and clean-up crews had not seen evidence of any environmental effects to the Nottoway since the spill occurred.

Tuesday afternoon’s downpour was further good news, because &uot;the extra flow is going to help wash the system clean,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s going to help flush the residual (chemicals) out.&uot;

Hart said the incident took place at about 10 a.m. Monday, when 920 gallons of tert-butyl hydroperoxide and 1,270 gallons of dimethylbenzyl alcohol escaped into cooling water discharge piping. The discharge ran into a ditch and then into a canal that feeds into the river.

Employees monitoring the manufacturing process within the plant &uot;noticed that the flows within the unit weren’t right and started to troubleshoot,&uot; he said.

A little less than a half-hour later, when they found the chemicals had spilled outside, &uot;they shut down the flows that were discharging to the system.&uot;

The cause of the initial discharge is under investigation, but it is thought to have resulted from the failure of an internal gasket or cooling water tube, Hart said.

Hercules employees quickly called their environmental clean-up contractor, which was on the scene within an hour. The initial clean-up was complete by 7 p.m. Monday, but the company was back on site Tuesday &uot;working in less accessible areas.&uot;

&uot;At this point, I think we’ve done everything we can do on the site,&uot; Hart said, adding that Hercules would cooperate with VDEQ to get water samples analyzed &uot;to make sure we don’t have any detectable levels of the chemicals in the river.&uot;

&uot;We seriously regret this incident occurring,&uot; he said. &uot;We treat the Nottoway as one of the jewels of the area … and we will do everything we can to remediate it.&uot;

Both chemicals dilute quickly in water and have &uot;relatively low volatility,&uot; Hart said, so environmental damage would have been most likely to occur at the point and time of discharge.

Nonetheless, local officials moved quickly to shut down access to the river, posting notices at all public access points and even at convenience stores in the immediate vicinity.

&uot;We would rather be cautious,&uot; said the Sheriff’s Department’s Morris.

The chemicals that were released are used by Hercules to make a product for GEO Specialty Chemicals that is used in hoses, belts and the coating around underground electrical cables.

According to Hayden of the VDEQ, a &uot;much smaller&uot; chemical spill occurred at the Hercules plant in December 2005. He could not say whether any enforcement action was taken at that time or whether any would be taken in reference to Monday’s chemical release.

Jeff Turner, the Blackwater-Nottoway Riverkeeper, said there had been four different spills in the past two years and expressed frustration with the company’s record.

&uot;I’m about tired of this,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s time for something to happen here.&uot;

Turner and a biologist from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries took a boat ride down the Nottoway on Monday, looking for environmental effects.

Although water in the area around Hercules &uot;smelled like something you didn’t want to get in,&uot; Turner said, the odor had dissipated within a half-mile of the plant.