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Officials: Blast’s Effects Minor

August 9, 2007

By Tim Potter, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

Aug. 9–Officials told Valley Center residents Wednesday night that they have detected no significant harm to public health from the chemical fire last month at the Barton Solvents plant.

The raging fire and explosions that sent a massive black plume into the sky July 17 caused only minor eye irritation and possible breathing problems in the short term, health officials said.

“We do not expect any long-term effects from this,” Sedgwick County Health Director Claudia Blackburn said during a town hall meeting on the fire that was held at Valley Center High School. About 80 people attended.

Still, the reassurance didn’t keep some residents from voicing concerns about the potential for future fires or explosions at the solvent distribution plant.

Gerad Gagnon, who lives in a new housing development a quarter-mile from the plant, told health and emergency officials that he worries about combustibles in the Barton Solvents warehouse, which survived the fire that destroyed the company’s tank farm.

Gagnon said it seemed to him that the tanks caught fire “like dominoes” because they were too close together.

Meanwhile, investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board are looking at whether storage tank spacing and the fact that the vessels shared the same containment dike contributed to the fire’s spread, said Randy McClure, the board’s lead investigator on the Valley Center fire.

Firefighters told investigators that it appeared that manway-cover gaskets on the tanks melted, spilling flammable liquids that fed the fire, McClure said. Manway holes give workers access to tanks.

Board investigators on Wednesday were measuring spacing between tanks, and so far it appears to meet the standard, McClure said. The fire safety standard is a minimum of 3 feet between tanks, or more for larger tanks.

“It may be that these guys were doing what was reasonable, but that may not be enough,” McClure said.

He said Barton Solvents has been “very cooperative” with investigators.

The state fire marshal’s office has said its preliminary finding is that the fire and explosions started with static igniting vapors in a tank that was being filled.

In an interview earlier Wednesday, Barton Solvents president David Casten said the company plans to present a new design for the tank farm that is “pretty close” to the current spacing and configuration, which includes about 40 storage tanks with a capacity of about 600,000 gallons. That plan must be approved by the state, he said.

During the town hall meeting, Sedgwick County Deputy Fire Chief Rick Brazill defended the fire response, saying it took several hours and the combined efforts of six fire departments to extinguish the fire because it was so large and intense and involved multiple explosions. He said he had to protect firefighters’ lives.

Fire crews managed to protect the warehouse, railcars and semi-trailers that were exposed to the fire, he said.

“We were as prepared as we could be for that type of incident,” Brazill said.

One woman told the officials that she worried that property values around the plant would be hurt because of the incident.

Mayor Michael McNown, noting lingering questions about how the evacuation of thousands of people was carried out, stressed that the evacuation was voluntary. Still, he said, officers were “strongly encouraging” residents to leave and stay out that day. Officers didn’t arrest anyone for not evacuating, and some residents walked back in, he said.

Officers tried to discourage people from returning, he said, because of concern then about health risks.

“Could it have been done better? Maybe,” he said.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com [mailto:tpotter@wichitaeagle.com].

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

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