Chemical spill near downtown St.Paul leads to tense moments

Close call
The spill happened across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul, in an industrial park. Officials say the wind carried the toxic cloud to unpopulated areas.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

The spill happened at 11:42 a.m. at an industrial park across the river from downtown St. Paul. An estimated 5,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled from a rail car outside of Hawkins Chemical. The spilled acid sent a toxic cloud of gas into the air that sickened three people on the ground and threatened dozens of nearby industrial park workers.

About 50 people were evacuated from three businesses while officials worked to contain the spill and monitor the cloud to see which direction the strong winds would take it. A few hours later at a news briefing along the St. Paul riverfront, Fire Marshall Steve Zaccard said the threat was over.

"The leak's been stopped and we're in the process of neutralizing it now. The area was safely evacuated downwind for about a mile-and-a-half of where we're standing," he said. "Downtown was not at any risk of exposure to this."

Downtown was not at any risk of exposure to this.

For a time, the early afternoon winds were a major concern as officials tracked the cloud. Zaccard says fortunately a worst-case scenario did not happen.

"The wind can be bad depending on how fast or where it's blowing. In this case it's blowing pretty much down the river to an unoccupied area."

Hydrochloric acid is a respiratory and skin irritant. If it's inhaled it can cause chest pain, coughing and even ulcers in the respiratory tract. If the chemical comes in contact with skin it can cause severe burns and scarring. Zaccard says the chemical is quite dangerous in large amounts.

"We did have to examine three people and take one to Regions Hospital who were exposed to it at the time of the leak. It's got a very pungent acidic type odor. There's a faint white cloud that's really dissipated a lot since our crews arrived," he said.

Zaccard says the work to neutralize the chemical spill has been arduous. He says hazardous materials team members dressed in special garments and breathing equipment have to hand carry 50 pound bags of soda ash to pour on the spilled chemical.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials were also on the scene today to try to determine how much of the chemical might have leaked into the ground. They're also monitoring to see if any of the chemical made its way to the Mississippi River.

Officials say at this point they don't know why the rail car leak occurred. Investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are expected to look into the cause.

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